Jessamy is a British orphan who is being raised by her two aunts, Millicent and Maggie. The two aunts aren’t really raising her together, though. Jessamy lives with Aunt Millicent during the school year, and she goes to stay with Aunt Maggie during school holidays. Truth be told, Aunt Millicent (her mother’s sister) and Aunt Maggie (her father’s sister) don’t really like each other, and they have different priorities and goals for Jessamy’s future. Aunt Millicent is doing her best to help Jessamy be pretty and popular, making sure that she wears a retainer to straighten her teeth and only allowing her to associate with “nice” children (apparently meaning ones from “good” families in the sense of social connections, who mostly don’t like Jessamy – Jessamy is usually not allowed to play with the children she actually likes and who like her). On the other hand, Aunt Maggie doesn’t care about beauty or popularity and just wants Jessamy to be well-behaved. Jessamy is confident that she is disappointing both of her aunts in all of these qualities. Her aunts are fond of her, but they are also occupied with their own lives. Aunt Millicent has her work, and Aunt Maggie has two children of her own, so Jessamy really has only half of their attention at any particular time.
However, Jessamy’s usual bouncing between her aunts is interrupted one summer when Aunt Maggie’s children, Jessamy’s older cousins Muriel and Edgar, catch whooping cough. Jessamy hasn’t had whooping cough herself, so she wouldn’t have any immunity. Rather than bring Jessamy into the household and have her end up sick, too, Aunt Maggie realizes that she has to find another place for her to stay until the other children are better. Jessamy can’t go back to Aunt Millicent because Aunt Millicent is leaving on a business trip, so Aunt Maggie arranges for Jessamy to stay with Miss Brindle, who is the caretaker of a large old house known to locals as Posset Place.
Miss Brindle is an older woman and is not used to spending time with children. Although Jessamy doesn’t really get along with her cousins, she isn’t sure if she’s going to like staying with Miss Brindle. However, Miss Brindle isn’t bad. She isn’t fond of Muriel or Edgar, either, and she says right up front that she’s glad that Jessamy seems different from her cousins. She also says that she’s going to treat Jessamy like an adult because she doesn’t know much about children, which suits Jessamy fine.
Miss Brindle tells Jessamy a little about the history of the old house. Posset Place was built in 1885 by a man named Nathaniel Parkinson, who made his money from producing a cough syrup called Parkinson’s Expectorant Posset. The house is largely empty now, except for the housekeeper’s quarters, where Miss Brindle now lives. Miss Brindle spends her time making sure the rooms are kept clean and well-aired.
Miss Brindle lets Jessamy explore the house a little before supper, and in particular, Jessamy is fascinated by the empty nursery. She finds herself imagining the children who used to live there and the toys and books the nursery once held. Then, she notices markings on the wall where the children’s heights were recorded, and she sees that one of the children was also named Jessamy. She tries to ask Miss Brindle about it, but Miss Brindle isn’t aware that there were any names written on the nursery wall.
During the night, Jessamy wakes up, still thinking about seeing her own name written on the wall of the nursery. She could have been mistaken, but it bothers her to the point where she feels like she has to go look at it again. Taking her flashlight, she goes upstairs again to look at the names. However, this time, the nursery is not empty, like it was before. There are clothes hanging on the wooden pegs on the wall and a line of shoes on the floor. When she checks the old measuring marks, she sees that there are fewer marks than she remembered before, but one of the names is definitely Jessamy, and the year next to that name is 1914. Jessamy lives in 1966 (contemporary with when the book was written), but the day in 1914 is the same day that she came to stay with Miss Brindle – July 23rd.
Then, to Jessamy’s surprise, she suddenly realizes that she is holding a lit candle instead of her flashlight. At first, Jessamy thinks that she must be dreaming, but then, an angry young woman comes and tells her that she should be in bed because she’s ill, not running around with a candle. The woman threatens to tell her aunt about this. When the woman lights her lamp, Jessamy sees that the nursery is now fully furnished.
It seems that Jessamy has gone back in time to 1914 and has been mistaken for the Jessamy who lived in the house in the past. The woman, who is Miss Matchett, the parlor maid, says that the other children named in the height markings – Marcus, Fanny, and Kitto – are all asleep and that it’s nearly midnight. The Jessamy of the past is the niece of the cook-housekeeper, which is why she is allowed to be with the children of the house. Jessamy’s head hurts, and she realizes that there is suddenly a bandage around it. Miss Matchett says that she fell out of a mulberry tree.
Jessamy realizes that the housemaid is only awake at this late hour and fully dressed because she had just returned from slipping out of the house secretly. When she points it out, Miss Matchett admits that she sneaked out to see her gentleman friend, and she says that if Jessamy doesn’t tell on her for doing that, she won’t tell her aunt that she was out of bed. Jessamy agrees, and Miss Matchett leads her back to her bed in the housekeeper’s quarters.
When Jessamy wakes up in the morning, she expects to find that everything that happened in the nursery during the night was a dream, but it isn’t. The room is the same one Miss Brindle gave her in the housekeeper’s quarters, but the bed and furnishings of the room are different. Jessamy is woken by a woman she’s never met before, not Miss Brindle.
This woman is the past Jessamy’s aunt, who tells her that she has had approval to stay on as the cook-housekeeper for the Parkinson family with Jessamy living with her. Not every household would accept a housekeeper with a young niece to raise, but as Nathaniel Parkinson himself says, the Parkinsons are not an ordinary family. Nathaniel Parkinson is a self-made man, from a humble background in spite of his current fortune, so he doesn’t put on airs, like other men of his current class. His granddaughter, Miss Cecily, at first disapproves of Jessamy, thinking that she might be too “common” (like the friends Jessamy’s Aunt Millicent disapproves of) and that she might not be a good influence on the children of the house, her younger siblings, who she is helping to raise. However, past Jessamy’s aunt defends her, and Nathaniel Parkinson says that she might actually be good for other children. He thinks Fanny has been acting too fine, and Kit could use the company of another child his age.
Jessamy is happy when she learns that past Jessamy has made friends with the Parkinson children and has really become part of the household. She is told that Fanny still thinks of her as being just the niece of a servant, but Kit (aka Kitto) is her special friend. Jessamy also likes this 1914 aunt better than her 1966 aunts because she seems nicer and more her kind of person. The realization that this is not a dream but that she has really traveled back in time is worrying, but Jessamy tells herself that she will somehow find her way back to her own time and that she should enjoy 1914 as much as she can while she can.
From the housemaid, Sarah, Jessamy learns that the Parkinson children live with their grandfather because their parents were killed in a carriage accident. Miss Cecily, the oldest girl in the family, takes care of her younger siblings and tries to manage the household while her oldest brother is away at Oxford. Miss Cecily is still learning about the running of a household, so past Jessamy’s aunt, Mrs. Rumbold, has to help her.
Jessamy also learns that she fell out of a tree house that she and Kit built together and that Fanny, who was also in the tree house at the time, was particularly upset by her accident. Fanny confesses to Jessamy that the reason she fell was because she pushed her. She hadn’t meant to push her out of the tree house or for her to fall, but the two of them were having an argument at the time. Fanny felt guilty about her getting hurt, but she’s still angry that Jessamy will be staying on at the house. She thinks that her grandfather and older sister decided to let her and her aunt stay partly because they felt badly about her getting hurt. Although Fanny is grateful that Jessamy didn’t tell on her for causing her accident, she still isn’t happy that Jessamy will be living with them. Fanny does put on airs, but she openly admits that she does it because everyone seems to be against her. Girls at school teasingly cough around her all the time because her grandfather made his money with his cough syrup, and since Jesssamy came, she feels like her brothers always side with Jessamy instead of her. Fanny has been in trouble before for bad behavior, and her brothers know that their grandfather has said if she does it again, he’ll send her to boarding school. Jessamy thinks that the idea of boarding school sounds exciting, but her brothers say that Fanny would hate it.
In spite of the drama with Fanny, Jessamy enjoys her time in 1914 and the other people there. She has the feeling that something important happened in 1914, and she remembers what it was when Nathaniel Parkinson and Kit talk about the possibility of war with Germany. Jessamy realizes that the coming war is going to be World War I and that it is going to start soon. Harry, the oldest boy in the Parkinson family, is back from Oxford, and he talks about how exciting it would be to be a soldier if there is a war, but Nathaniel Parkinson isn’t excited, understanding more about the nature of war than his grandchildren. Harry’s grandfather wants him to finish college, but Harry is in debt and wants to take his future into his own hands. Harry runs away, and at the same time, a valuable antique book belonging to his grandfather disappears. Jessamy doesn’t like to think that the pleasant young man stole his grandfather’s book, but what other explanation is there?
Just when Jessamy is getting caught up in the events in the Parkinson household and is concerned about the future of the past Jessamy and her aunt, Jessamy finds herself once again in 1966. Is it still possible for her to return to 1914 or learn what happened to the people she’s grown so fond of? Jessamy also begins to wonder who is the current owner of this old house and Mrs. Brindle’s employer? Learning the answers to those questions also explains a few things about Jessamy’s own family and past and gives her the one thing she really wants most.
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).
My Reaction and Spoilers
This story is a combination of fantasy and mystery, a combination that I always like. In some ways, this story reminds me of Charlotte Sometimes because the time switching takes place between similar eras, but there are some notable differences between the two books. Charlotte Sometimes took place at a boarding school, and Charlotte went back in time to the end of WWI, not the beginning. There was also no mystery plot in Charlotte Sometimes beyond Charlotte trying to figure out how and why she is switching places with a girl in the past. Also, in Charlotte Sometimes, it isn’t clear whether Charlotte influenced or changed anything in the past, but Jessamy definitely does. The modern Jessamy had to be the one to solve the mystery because she has access to information that the past Jessamy didn’t have.
In the past, Jessamy begins investigating the mysterious theft of the valuable book. Although she knows that Harry isn’t the type to steal from his grandfather, it takes a second visit back in time for her to discover who the real thief is and to clear Harry’s name. Unfortunately, she is unable to actually find the stolen book in the past to return it to its first owner. It is through a new friend that she makes in 1966 that she learns what really happened to the book and is able to return it to the current owner of the house … an old friend of hers from 1914.
Along the way, Jessamy also learns a few things about the history of her own family. She realizes at the beginning of the story that Jessamy is an unusual name, which is why she is surprised that the girl in the past is also called Jessamy. It turns out that Jessamy is a name that is passed down through her family. She is not a direct descendant of the past Jessamy, as I first suspected, but the past Jessamy is a relative of hers. She also comes to understand that her family used to be more grand, but during the past, they fell on hard times. This is also important to the story because class differences figure into the plot.
Everyone in 1914 is concerned about class differences, but in different ways. Nathaniel Parkinson is actually the least concerned with class because he has actually shifted to a higher class during his lifetime, making him aware that people from different classes are really just people, only in different circumstances. His granddaughters are more class conscious, although both of them also soften on that after getting to know Jessamy better. Even the servants are also class conscious, with some of the servants putting on airs because they’re above other types of servants.
Something that surprised me in the story is the realization, toward the end of the book, that class differences are partly the reason why Aunt Millicent and Aunt Maggie don’t get along. Aunt Millicent’s efforts to make Jessamy more pretty and popular and have her be friends with certain people are social-climbing efforts, partly because Aunt Millicent is aware of their family’s past and wants the family to climb up from their humbled circumstances. Aunt Maggie’s disapproval of Aunt Millicent seems to come somewhat from her disapproval of Millicent’s efforts at social-climbing or trying to act like she’s more grand than she actually is. It isn’t stated explicitly, but it is heavily implied. We don’t meet Millicent in the book, but from her description, I suspect that she disapproves of Aunt Maggie because she thinks of her as being too “common.” From the characters’ descriptions of Maggie’s children, it seems like people who don’t like them think of them as being “common” or uncreative, indicating that this branch of Jessamy’s family is rather prosaic, being typical in a rather dull way.
The objective reality is probably that Jessamy’s two aunts are not very far apart in their social status, but they have different attitudes toward their social status. Aunt Maggie doesn’t care much about it. She fits in well where she is, she doesn’t care about moving up in society, and she just focuses on the children behaving well within their social status. Aunt Millicent, however, has a high opinion of who she is and where the family ought to be in society, and she is focused on moving up. Jessamy doesn’t really fit with either of her aunts’ philosophies of life. What she really wants is the chance to make real friends and fit in somewhere with people who like her and who like the sort of things she likes. She gets the opportunity at the end of the story when the current owner of the old house becomes her benefactor and arranges for her to attend boarding school, which she has said is something that she’s always wanted to do. At boarding school, Jessamy will be out from under the direct supervision of both of her aunts and will have the opportunity to develop independently and make new friends who suit her, rather than her aunts.
Even Fanny finds boarding school beneficial. We don’t know exactly how her life ended up in the 1960s, but when Fanny realizes that she’s caused problems for the past Jessamy in more ways than one and that she needs to admit the truth to her grandfather and older sister, her character develops for the better. She begins to develop empathy and compassion for the past Jessamy, looking beyond feeling sorry for herself to feeling something for another person she has directly harmed, and she reforms her character. She accepts the consequences for her actions, even though she was afraid to do so before, and it leads her to better things because the consequences are not as bad as she thought and actually help her. Although she was initially afraid of being sent away from her family, when her grandfather decides that she needs the discipline and sends her to boarding school, she discovers that she actually likes it. Going to boarding school allows her to get away from the girls who were bullying her at her local school and make new friends, and she develops some self-confidence from the experience, turning into a young lady who helps her older sister in her volunteer work for the war effort.
One final thought I had is that every time I’ve ever read a book with a sickness like whooping cough in it, I feel like it really dates the book. I know this book does have a specific date by design, and I know people still catch whooping cough in the 21st century if they haven’t been vaccinated (get your tetanus shot – in the US, the tetanus shot includes the whooping cough vaccine), but to me, this type of illness feels like a time travel back to my parents’ youths by itself. My parents and their siblings had whooping cough when they were young, but I’m almost 40 years old and have never seen a case of it myself.
This is the final book in The Dark is Rising Sequence, and it focuses on the epic battle between the forces of good (the Light) and the forces of evil (the Dark). Like the other books in this series, it uses and references folklore and Arthurian legends. At the end of the previous book, the characters used a magical harp to wake “the Sleepers” in Wales. The man that the children know as Merriman Lyon is actually Merlin from the Arthurian legends, and Will Stanton has discovered that King Arthur had a son named Bran who was brought into the 20th century by Guinevere and Merlin to protect him from his parents’ troubles in their own time.
Twelve-year-old Will Stanton is spending some time with his brothers at Midsummer because his oldest brother, Steven, has come home for a visit from his service in the navy. While the boys are out fishing, Will begins having visions of the distant past. He sees people who seem to be fleeing from something, and these people are talking about the terrible things that their pursuers would do to them if they caught them. Will watches as they bury something, some kind of treasure. He sees smoke on the horizon and has a sense of fear that tells him these people are right to be afraid. Then, suddenly, Will is back with his brothers in modern times, and a strange black animal, probably a mink, is sitting there, staring at Will. His brothers run the mink off, commenting on how oddly it was behaving.
Steven talks to Will in private about some odd things that have been happening that have let him know that Will must be involved in something strange. Strangers in other countries that Steven has visited have approached him and, with no explanation, have asked him to tell Will that the Old Ones of different regions are “ready.” Steven wants to know who these people are, how they know Will and know that Steven is will’s brother, what Will is involved in, and what they mean when they say that they’re “ready.” Will doesn’t want to answer at first because he knows that Steven won’t understand, but Steven insists that he wants an explanation. Will explains to him, as best he can, about the Old Ones, the magic of the world and the universe, and the opposing forces of the Dark and the Light that are fated to battle with each other. (This is the most complete and concise explanation of how magic works in these stories and how their universe is ordered.) As Will expected, Steven doesn’t believe him and insists that he can’t be an “Old One” because he is only twelve years old and Steven remembers when he was born, but Will asks him whether it’s any more plausible that a twelve-year-old boy would be involved in smuggling or other suspicious activities. Steven doesn’t know what to think, but then, some white moths come, and Will recognizes them as creatures that are reputed to carry away memories. After they leave, Steven doesn’t remember their conversation at all and is no longer interested in the idea of the “Old Ones.”
On the way home, Steven deals with a young local bully who stole an instrument case from a smaller boy. The bully threatens to send his father after Steven, and Steven, being a tough member of the navy, says that he’d be happy to talk to his father about the bully. The father does come to talk to Steven eventually, and the Stantons see that the young bully’s bad behavior is fueled by racist things that his father thinks and says. The father of the bully has no self-awareness. The Stantons are disgusted by him, but Will’s father says to his kids that they know that such disagreeable people exist and “You can’t convince them, and you can’t kill ’em. You can only do your best in the opposite direction—which you did.” (The part of the observation about not killing people sounds a bit violent, but I think I understand. You might not like certain people, and you might find them a hardship to have around, but you can’t just get rid of them, out of the world, anymore than the racist bully has either the right or the ability to get rid of all the people he doesn’t like. All people are a part of the world and all have a right to be there … no matter how much of a trial and hardship some of them make themselves to other people because they either don’t understand that other people are making allowances for them on a daily basis that they don’t make for others or deny knowing it to preserve their self-image and justify their bad behavior. Yeah, I’m a bit fed up with some people myself, but we’re all stuck with each other, so we all have to make the best of it.) Will finds himself evaluating this man as an Old One, trying to decide if he is also an agent of the Dark. He seems to be an ordinary human, but it has already been established that even ordinary humans can also serve the Dark, even unknowingly. Will finds himself thinking that people have multiple sides to their personalities, indicating that this obnoxious man may have a role to play in the upcoming struggle, either for good or evil, and whichever role it is will be his personal choice. On the other hand, there is a concept in this story that there are people and things outside of the battle between Light and Dark, people who are either neutral or a mixture of Dark and Light. In other words, this jerk could simply be just a random jerk and hold no other significance but that. (Spoiler: He doesn’t appear again in this story, and the jerk isn’t significant. He’s just a rude guy with a nasty son and some personal issues that are causing him to be a bad example. On the one hand, I’m was a little disappointed because I thought they were setting something up with this incident, but on the other hand, the character was so oblivious and full of himself that saying that he’s insignificant in the grand scheme of things actually pleases me.)
Later, the mink shows up again and kills some of the Stanton family’s chickens, not even carrying them off. It seems like the mink is merely killing for the pleasure of killing, not to eat. Will recognizes that the animal is another creature of the Dark and almost kills it, but he decides not to because it wouldn’t do any good. He knows that the Dark is rising, and killing this small creature won’t stop what is about to happen.
Will continues to have visions of the past and a sense that he is sometimes between time periods. Old Ones can travel between time periods, and even Will has done this before. The rising of the Dark that is happening in the 20th century is actually the Second Rising. The First Rising of the Dark was during the time of King Arthur, about 1500 years earlier. Will travels to that time with Merriman/Merlin and witnesses that struggle. There is a connection between the First Rising and the Second Rising. They are both part of the same, larger battle. Old Ones aren’t bound by time like normal humans, and the struggle between Light and Dark also transcends time.
To protect the six signs that Will had to gather in the second book of the series, he and Merriman hid them in the past, during Roman Britain. Now, Will has to retrieve them because they will be needed for the upcoming struggle. Will and Merriman have to go through multiple time periods to get the signs, and then, they have to summon the other Old Ones for the final battle. However, one of the Old Ones, a vital one, is missing. Will realizes that he must go to Wales once again to find the Old One known as The Lady.
In Wales, Will is reunited with Bran from the previous book and with the three Drew children from previous books, whose parents are staying at a local golfing hotel at Merriman’s suggestion. All of them will be needed for the battle is coming. They will each have to face their own tests of character and courage, and when it’s over, their futures will be in their own hands. They all go on their own trips through time, and Will and Bran visit the Lost Land, where Bran was actually born.
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).
My Reaction and Spoilers
I often find myself feeling a little disappointed at the ends of books or tv shows that have a long wind-up to some kind of epic battle or revelation because what happens rarely meets my expectations. When a single event or plot point has been built up over a long time, the imaginations of readers and viewers sometimes have such high expectations that the final resolution of it can feel a little like a let down. With this one, I had some mixed feelings.
I liked it that all of the major characters had roles to play in the final events. I would have been disappointed if some of the major characters had fallen away. I didn’t want Bran to replace the Drew children in the story, for example. However, everyone has a role and at least one major test of character or bravery. There is a twist toward the end where a minor character but someone we’ve seen before in a sympathetic role turns out to have been secretly evil all the time. It’s a terrible blow to one of the other characters, but he comes to accept that this person deceived him about who she really is and the attachment he felt was to the facade not the person as she actually is.
One of the aspects of this series that interests me the most is that it’s pretty thorough in the way it addresses the problem of evil in human beings. Throughout the series, it has shown what the agents of evil in the form of agents of the Dark are like. Some of them are deceptive about who they really are and what they really want, like the secretly evil character in this book, shocking even people who are close to them when they learn the truth. It’s true that many of us have been shocked by someone in our lives who wasn’t quite what we thought they were or had something unsavory about them or their behavior that we never suspected because they were careful to hide it. In the first book of the series, there was a betrayal of trust that led someone to turn to the Dark side. In other books, we’ve also seen neutral people or natural forces, people who choose a side by accident and aid the causes of good or evil unwittingly because they’re wrapped up in their own issues and don’t see the bigger picture, and as mentioned about the bully and his father, there are also people who are a mixed bag, with the potential go to either way, shift back and forth, or just hover somewhere in the middle. The series covers quite a lot of the nuances of the choices people make about their behavior and the choices they make between good and bad.
That being said, even though this book explains the background to the battle between Light and Dark in a more straightforward way than other books, I felt like I never completely understood the motives of the Light and the Dark. It seems like the two of them are just naturally opposing forces. They don’t seem to have any specific over-arching goal that they’re trying to accomplish other than defeating each other. What their exact plains are once they’ve achieved victory isn’t clear.
Of course, readers know that the Light will win, and when it does, Merriman says that there won’t be further battles between Dark and Light. Merriman and other Old Ones move on to another world, where they say they have work to do, although Will Stanton will remain as “the Watchman” to continue watching over the world. Merriman says that the two of them will see each other again someday. Merriman says that the future of this world is in the hands of the children and other people of the world, referencing man’s ability to destroy the world. This book, and the rest of the series, was written during the Cold War, when people were particularly afraid of the threat of nuclear weapons. It seems like the legends and prophecies are over. Bran remains in the present although his father, Arthur, invited him to the past because he has become part of the 20th century and is bound to his friends and adoptive father by affection.
I enjoyed all the references to old legends during the course of the story. The Lost Land is a legendary country off the coast of Wales. They don’t use the name Lyonesse, but I think that’s what they’re referring to. Accord to the book, people can still hear the bells of the lost city, a legend that’s been applied to other lost towns in legends, and a phenomena that has a scientific explanation, When Bran and Will go there, they meet a bard named Gwion (Taliesen).
This is one of the most famous time slip stories for children! I remember either reading it or having it read to me when I was a kid, but I have to admit that I really remembered only the broad strokes of the story until I reread it as an adult.
When the story begins, Tom Long is sad and angry because his brother, Peter, has caught the measles, and it’s going to ruin their summer holidays. The two of them originally planned to spend the summer building a tree house in the apple tree in their backyard garden, but now, Tom is being rushed away from the house (sent into exile, as he thinks of it) so that he won’t catch the measles from his brother. Tom thinks that he would rather be sick with Peter than sent away by himself.
Tom is going to stay with his Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen. His aunt and uncle are kind people who like kids, and in a way, it makes Tom feel worse because it makes him seem unreasonable for resenting spending the summer with them. If they were cruel, he could run away and everyone would tell him he was right for doing so, but when people are nice to you, there’s less to complain about, and Tom is in a complaining mood. The major problem with staying with Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen is that they live in a small flat with no garden. Tom can’t even get out and see the sights of the city because he’s supposed to be in quarantine for awhile, just in case he’s already caught the measles from Peter and it hasn’t started to show yet. (It takes about 10 to 14 days after infection before measles symptoms start to show, so Tom has to stay in quarantine that long to be sure he’s not sick. Anybody with experience of coronavirus quarantines knows the drill, even if they didn’t before.) So, basically, Tom is going to be temporarily shut up like he’s sick, with the goal of making sure that he’s not sick and not going to be, but without the company of his brother or the comforts of his own home. They’re doing it for Tom’s welfare because measles can have serious side effects, and it’s not something anybody wants to get. There are sound reasons for trying to both protect Tom from infection if he hasn’t been infected already and also trying to protect others that Tom might infect while they’re waiting to make sure that he’s really okay, but it’s still a depressing situation. They’re planning on Tom quarantining for ten days with his aunt and uncle, just about a week and a half, provided that he doesn’t show any symptoms that would force him to quarantine for longer. The only people Tom is allowed to see during his quarantine period are people who have already had measles and are now immune to it, like his aunt and uncle.
(Note: I have never actually seen a live case of the measles in my entire life, as of this posting. I was born in the early 1980s, and growing up, everyone I knew who had the measles was an older person who had it as a child in the 1950s or earlier, before the time that this story was written. Vaccines against measles have been available in the United States since the early 1960s, too late for my parents but well before I was born. I know that this disease still exists, but I grew up in a community where measles vaccines were required for going to public schools. Because all of the kids I knew when I was young went to the same school with the same requirement, everybody I knew in my own generation was vaccinated, and none of us ever got measles. I’m pointing this out because the first generation of children to read this story would have found the situation familiar, but it’s not something that happened to me or anybody else I knew as a kid. When I was a kid, I used to think of measles as an old-timey old people’s disease, one of the diseases that your characters could get in the Oregon Trail computer game that could either delay or kill your characters, but not something that I ever expected to encounter in the real, modern world. The closest equivalent from my youth was chicken pox because that was a spot-causing disease that I knew people had to be quarantined for, and it was unavoidable because there was no vaccine available in my earliest years. I did have chicken pox, which is why I have a scar on my face now, and I was isolated from other children when it became obvious that I had it. However, my younger cousins were vaccinated for chicken pox when that vaccine became available in the 1990s, so they’ve never experienced the disease that afflicted me. For the next generation, I get to be the older person who has a story about an old-timey disease because life moves on. It’s just part of the cycle of time and history. But, just as background for my mindset as a child reader, when I was a kid, I pictured measles as a kind of old-fashioned but more serious chicken pox. That’s not medically true because they’re separate diseases, but I just never saw or experienced actual measles, and that was the closest equivalent I could imagine at that age.)
The flat where Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen live is in an old house in or near Ely, England that has been divided up into flats. It’s not a bad house, but Tom doesn’t think it seems particularly welcoming. He’s also a little offended that the guest room where he’s supposed to be staying used to be a nursery and has the characteristic bars on the windows that old-fashioned nurseries have to keep children from falling out. Aunt Gwen explains that those are left over from when the house used to be a private home and aren’t meant for him, but Tom is in no mood to be treated like he’s a baby. The one feature of the house he likes is the old grandfather clock that belongs to Mrs. Bartholomew, the owner of the house and his aunt and uncle’s landlady, who lives upstairs. The clock’s chimes can be heard all over the house, and it’s something of a joke and a source of irritation to the people living in the house because, even though the clock keeps perfect time, it never chimes the right number. The chimes are always some random number for no apparent reason. Of course, there is a reason.
Tom is bored and restless. All he has for entertainment is crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and his aunt’s old books from when she was a kid, and the books are just school stories for girls, so Tom doesn’t find them interesting. Tom helps his aunt in the kitchen, and he loves her cooking, but it’s a bit rich and gives him indigestion. Because of that, he often has trouble sleeping, but his aunt and uncle insist that he get ten hours of sleep a night because that’s what kids his age are supposed to need. They won’t let him read or get up or do anything when he can’t sleep, so he just has to lie awake, bored.
One night, while lying awake in bed, Tom hears the clock downstairs strike thirteen. That strikes him as odd because he’s never heard a clock strike thirteen times before, and he didn’t even think it was possible for a wrong clock to do that. He starts considering that maybe there is actually a hidden, thirteenth hour of night that his uncle knows nothing about, so that one free hour should belong to Tom, to with as he wishes. He’s not sure that idea really makes sense, but he feels compelled to get up and go downstairs to investigate.
When Tom gets downstairs, he can’t read the clock because it’s too dark, and he can’t find the light switch. Then, he gets the idea to open the back door so he can read the clock by moonlight. However, when he opens the back door, he sees a beautiful lawn and garden instead of the empty yard his aunt and uncle told him was there. At first, Tom is angry that they lied to him about there not being a garden. He thinks to himself that he’s going to come back and see the garden in daylight. As he’s heading back inside to look at the clock, he encounters a young maid. He’s surprised to see the girl enter someone else’s flat without knocking or ringing the bell in the middle of the night. Then, he begins to notice that the house is different from the way he saw it during the day. The grandfather clock is still there, but the laundry box, milk bottles, and travel posters have been replaced by an umbrella stand, a dinner gong, an air gun, and a fishing rod. The girl calls out that she’s lit a fire in “the parlour,” and Tom watches as she crosses to another room, kind of melting through the door instead of opening it like a living person would. Is Tom seeing a ghost? Then, the vision fades, all of the old-fashioned furnishing are gone, and everything in the downstairs hall looks the way Tom remembered it from his arrival.
In spite of realizing that the house might be haunted, Tom is happier from his adventures and knowing about the beautiful garden outside. He now has something more exciting to think about than just being bored. However, he’s still mad at his aunt and uncle for keeping him in the dark about the garden outside. He tries to hint to them that he knows about it, but when he mentions seeing hyacinths blooming, his aunt tells him that’s impossible because it’s summer, and hyacinths are out of season. Tom is unsettled by that, and he runs downstairs to check. When he gets there, the lock on the back door is different from what he remembered the night before, and when he opens the back door, there’s no garden there, only the dust bins his aunt and uncle mentioned and a man working on a car. Tom asks the man, who lives in the flat where Tom saw the maid enter to light a fire if he has a maid, and man tells him no. Tom tries to ask him about the garden, but he starts crying when he realizes that the garden couldn’t have been real. The man tries to ask him what’s wrong, but Tom doesn’t want to explain it. He stops Tom from running into old Mrs. Bartholomew, who has come downstairs to wind the grandfather clock. Tom watches the winding process with fascination and feels calmer.
Tom begins to reason out how he could have seen a garden the night before when there isn’t one there now. He’s sure that he didn’t just dream it or imagine it, so he decides to conduct an investigation. He considers the different pieces of the puzzle – the house that looks different at night, the clock that chimes thirteen times, and trees that are now in the backyards of neighboring houses but which must have been part of the large garden he saw. Tom begins writing a series of letters to his brother about what he’s experiencing and his investigations into it, which he asks Peter to burn after reading. At night, he stays up, waiting for the clock to chime thirteen again … and it does. When it does, everything is as he saw it before – the different furnishings downstairs, the different latch on the back door, and best of all, the garden.
Tom visits the garden every night, noting that every time he goes, it’s a different time of day or a different season of the year. Time in the garden doesn’t correspond to time in the real world. Months can pass between his visits, even though Tom goes there every single night. It seems like, no matter how long Tom spends there, exploring, only a few minutes of the night has passed when he returns. One night, he sees a tree struck by lightning, but the next time he looks, the tree is just fine. Tom starts a discussion with his aunt and uncle about time without fully explaining why he wants to know how time works. When he poses the question of how a tree could fall over and then be standing upright again later, his aunt thinks that he’s talking about fairy tale or something he dreamed or imagined. His uncle says that it’s impossible without turning back the clock. The mention of a clock being turned back intrigues Tom, but his uncle says that’s just an expression, meaning to relive the past, which nobody can actually do. It’s a clue to Tom, though, about what’s really happening in the garden.
Tom also quickly realizes that he seems to have little substance when he’s in the garden. He can climb trees in the garden, but he can’t open doors by himself, for some reason. If he concentrates hard, he can walk through doors like a ghost, which is both frightening and fascinating. Also, most of the people he encounters can’t see him. Animals react to his presence, but people tend to look through him or past him and don’t seen to hear anything he says. There are three brothers who spend time in the garden, and Tom thinks that he’d like to be friends with the middle boy, James, but James never sees or hears him. The boys have a younger cousin, Hatty, who follows them around. They’re not very nice to her and often ignore her or exclude her from their activities, but Tom discovers, to his surprise, that Hatty can both see and hear him. Hatty becomes Tom’s friend, and they begin talking to each other, playing, and exploring the garden together.
Hatty is a sad and lonely girl who often plays imaginary games by herself in the garden. She tells Tom that she’s a captive princess, that the cruel woman who claims to be her aunt isn’t really her aunt, and that the mean boys aren’t her real cousins. The truth is that Hatty is an orphan and that her aunt resents her being her responsibility. Hatty’s aunt and cousins have money and servants, but Hatty is emotionally neglected. She has no one to be close to and share secrets with except for Tom.
Tom is so captivated by his shared time in the garden with Hatty that he tells his aunt that he’d like to stay longer. His uncle is mystified that Tom is really that interested in staying with them because he knows their apartment is boring, but his aunt is enthusiastic about him spending an extra week beyond his quarantine so she can show him some of the sights of the city. Then, Tom catches a cold that requires him to stay in bed for longer, but he is still able to visit the garden at night.
By this time, Tom has figured out that the garden once existed in the history of the house and that Hatty was someone who lived in the house at some point in the past, but he doesn’t really understand how or why he is able to visit her in the no-longer-existing garden at night. He still thinks that Hatty might be a ghost and even the garden might be some kind of ghost that haunts the house. However, Hatty tells Tom that she thinks he’s the ghost. Tom denies it, knowing that he’s not dead in his own time, but it’s true that, whenever he’s in the garden with Hatty, he is somewhat non-corporeal, unable to affect physical objects but able to walk through solid objects when he tries, and he is invisible to most people. Tom says that the only reason why he can walk through closed doors is that the garden itself, and every physical thing in it, is a ghost – he’s not passing through them so much as they’re passing through him because he’s solid, and they’re not really. Tom and Hatty argue about who’s a ghost and who’s not because, from each of their perspectives, they’re both real and alive, but yet, the entire situation is unreal. Tom sees pieces of the past changing and disappearing, and he knows what’s real in his time. However, Hatty can also say the same – she knows what’s real in her time, and Tom has a definite ghostly quality when he’s in her garden. What is the truth, and how long can the two of them continue meeting like this?
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies, including one in Chinese). It’s been made into tv versions (parts sometimes appear on YouTube) and a movie in 1999. The movie is also available online through Internet Archive.
If you’re interested in other time slip stories, see my list of Time Travel books.
My Reaction and Spoilers
Things to Do
First of all, I just have to get it out of my system: Tom’s family is not a creative bunch. I know the aunt and uncle took Tom in on short notice, but I’m just saying that with a little imagination, they could find more things for Tom to do during his quarantine. Two weeks is not that long if you have things to do and think about. There were always art supplies at my house when I was a kid, and even if you don’t have them on hand, paper and colored pencils or crayons aren’t very expensive. The cooking is a good activity, and maybe the aunt could teach Tom some new recipes that he could make by himself. With as much as the aunt is cooking, she’s also probably using things that come in boxes and cans, and boxes and cans can be made into things. Also, they could get the kid a book on something more interesting he can learn and use, like magic tricks he can practice or secret codes. They could teach him how to fold different kinds of paper airplanes or carve things out of soap or make a kite he can fly in the park when his quarantine ends. Heck, if he had a deck of cards, he could at least learn different types of solitaire games. There are over one hundred variations, and the kid just has to be entertained for a couple of weeks. The activities don’t have to be very impressive if you can think of enough of them to have a different one each day for him to try to break up the monotony of the the more usual stand-bys, like reading and puzzles. Just to prove that it’s possible, I made a list:
Drawing – I mentioned before that paper and crayons or colored pencils aren’t too expensive, and he doesn’t need to be any good at it. It’s just a challenge and would give him something creative to do, maybe while listening to music on the radio or something. Bonus points if you know enough about art to tell him about different styles of art and suggest that he try some different styles, like cubism or surrealism. He could also use art supplies to map out things, like a plan of the tree house he and Peter want to build. After he’s done that, he could draw a creative map of an imaginary castle or mansion or a haunted house or an entire amusement park or an elaborate clubhouse he would build if there were no restrictions on space or money. It doesn’t have to be possible or even drawn particularly well as long as it’s entertaining.
Paper airplanes or origami – You can make some fun things out of folded paper, and if you know how to make different styles of paper airplanes or can find a book about it, you can conduct tests to determine which styles fly the best. Yes, you then have a lot of paper airplanes laying around, but if your goal is to pass the time, cleaning up also takes up time.
Card games – I covered that. There are a lot of things you can do with a deck of cards, even if you’re just playing solitaire. He could try to build a house of a cards. He could also learn card tricks and the order of poker hands. (I know that not every family would be okay with a kid learning the rules to a gambling game, but my parents never minded as long as we didn’t gamble with money, and it’s the sort of mildly daring activity that appeals to kids. Besides, this kid has nobody else to play with right now, except for his aunt and uncle.)
Magic tricks – I covered this one. There are (and were back then) books of magic tricks that a boy could study, many of which use ordinary objects that a person could find around the house. He could practice a new trick each day or spend an entire day with one book, trying anything that looks interesting.
Secret codes – Again, they had books about this even back then, and once you know a few principles, you can start making your own codes. When I was a kid, I liked to experiment with basic alphabet shifts, and secret codes often formed the basis of treasure hunts that I had with my brother. Tom can’t have a treasure hunt for his brother yet, but he could be encouraged to plan one. Give him a notebook where he can practice his codes and make notes of possible hiding places. He can also write coded messages to send to his brother and challenge him to read them.
Current events – Kids don’t often read the newspaper, but his aunt and uncle could introduce him to features of the newspaper and what’s happening in the world. A new newspaper arrives every day, and it’s a source of reading material. At least, he could look at the comics or the sports pages, if he likes sports.
Model town or castle – As I said, there are probably cardboard boxes and cans being thrown out of this house, and they could be appropriated for some kind of craft project, ideally one that would take awhile for Tom to build and that he could add to each day. One of the best things to make out of random junk would be a town or a castle. Tin cans are towers and turrets, and cardboard boxes are the main buildings. Cover the outsides of the cans and boxes with plain paper and draw on them for decoration. Make people out of paper and cardboard. It could turn out amazing if he’s willing to put the time into making it as detailed as possible, but if it doesn’t turn out amazing, it’s okay because it was just junk anyway.
Plan for the future – This quarantine will end. Tom can mark off days on the calendar until he’s in the clear. Give Tom a guidebook to the city and tell him to make a list of places he wants to go and things he wants to do when the quarantine is over. It could be amusing for at least an afternoon. He’ll learn about the sights and landmarks of the city and be mildly entertained thinking of fun things to do in the near future. It will give him something to look forward to. It’s also an incentive for Tom to behave himself because his aunt and uncle can tell him that they’ll take him places he wants to go if he’s good about abiding by the rules of the quarantine until it’s over. Admittedly, Ely is one of the smallest cities in England, so there wouldn’t be as many sights to see as in London, and Tom already knows about the Cathedral, but there are shops, restaurants, and museums there. Some of them were founded after the 1950s, but there were some in Tom’s time, too. He visits at least one museum with his aunt at the end of the quarantine and goes to the movies with her. If they can’t find enough to do just in Ely when Tom’s quarantine is over, they could also spend a day visiting surrounding towns.
Discover or develop your mental powers – The amusement potential with this one depends on whether the kid has reached that phase where kids get fascinated by things like psychic abilities. Many kids go through a phase like that, and since Tom seems to like the idea of being in a haunted house, he’s probably the right age. If you can get him a book about psychic powers or telekinesis, he’d probably find it a fascinating read. The aunt and uncle could talk to him about whether or not such things actually exist, and he could try to test himself to see if he has any such powers. I had an English teacher in middle school who actually did that with us. There was only one test I really did well. Most people don’t do those types of tests well at all, but it’s amusing for at least an hour or two to try or talk about. If he happens to do better than average on anything, he could brag about it to his brother and his friends, telling them that he discovered and honed his psychic powers in a spooky old house during his vacation.
Write a story or poem – All you need is paper, a pencil, and some imagination. Writing a long story and trying to do it well could cover the entire quarantine period by itself, it would give him something to think about, and he’d have something to show for his relative isolation. Of course, the real goal is to be entertained and pass the time, so the story or poem doesn’t have to be great. It can be as crazy as Tom wants to make it, as long as he’s amused.
Start learning a language – Two weeks isn’t enough to really learn to speak a language, but it’s enough to learn a few words and phrases. If his aunt or uncle has an old textbook lying around from their student days, they could use that, or they could pick up a used one cheaply. It might make Tom groan because it’s a little like school, but it would be a challenge to practice using words from another language.
Board games – A classic! If they’re not into card games, Tom can spend evenings playing board games with his aunt and uncle. Most people have chess and checkers sets (his uncle does offer to teach him chess later in his visit), and Monopoly and Clue (or Cluedo) were common back then. Monopoly games are notorious for taking a long time to finish.
Invent a game – There are a lot of things you can do if you have paper and pencils, and one of them is to design your own board game. It can be about anything, and the rules can be anything you want. When you think you’ve got it the way you want, try playing it and see if there are any adjustments you need to make. Tom can also make his own jigsaw puzzles by cutting up a picture he’s drawn or gluing a magazine picture to a piece of cardboard and cutting it up. The cardboard can come from an empty cardboard box or he can remove the cardboard back of a drawing pad, if he no longer needs it.
Jokes – Get Tom a joke book and have him mail his brother a new joke every day. When he’s done reading the book, they could challenge him to try to make up some jokes of his own.
Learn to dance – This is assuming that the aunt and uncle also know how to dance, but I think it was pretty common back then for people to know at least a couple of basic dances. Tom could practice with his aunt in their living room (if they have to rearrange the furniture to do it, that’s another activity), and it would give him something to do for some mild exercise. Even if a boy might be embarrassed to dance with his aunt, nobody’s going to see them while he’s in quarantine, he doesn’t have to tell people who taught him, and if he’s willing to learn, it could help him later at school dances.
See? If you think about it, there are plenty of things to do for just a couple of weeks. There are even more if you’re willing to invest in buying things like craft kits or model kits or other things necessary to start a new hobby, but I was trying to be as basic as possible, mostly relying on inexpensive books and paper and pencils. However, the plot of the book requires Tom to be bored and lonely, so they can’t do those things, and that brings us back to the story.
The Truth About Hatty
So, what is the truth about Hatty and the midnight garden? This is a time slip story, not a ghost story, although sometimes the two of those go together in books. In this case, the time slip is not based around ghosts but around memory. When Tom is seeing the garden as it was in the past, he is seeing it as it existed in Hatty’s memories. He is somewhat correct in saying that he is non-corporeal there because the garden itself is non-corporeal – it’s a memory. Hatty is still alive in Tom’s time, and Tom is able to enter the garden when she revisits it in her memories and when she remembers him.
The twist in the book (spoiler) is that Hatty is Mrs. Bartholomew, the current owner of the house and the landlady of the flats. When Tom is trying to figure out whether Hatty’s a ghost, he briefly considers asking Mrs. Bartholomew about the history of the house, but he rejects the idea because his aunt and uncle told him that Mrs. Bartholomew only moved to this house fairly recently, after the death of her husband, so Tom assumes that she has no connection with or knowledge of Hatty and her family.
I liked the part where Tom tries to do some research and figure out what time period child Hatty lives in based on the types of clothes people wear in her time. He has some difficulty finding a good source with details about the variations in clothing styles over the years. He does realize that Hatty was a child in the Victorian era, between the 1830s and the early 1900s, but he ends up guessing earlier in the Victorian era than she actually lived, which is why he thinks she’s definitely dead and a ghost instead of an elderly lady in the 1950s.
As Tom continues his time travels into the past, Hatty gradually ages because Mrs. Bartholomew is remembering different times in her life. Eventually, Tom sees Hatty fall in love with a young man she calls “Barty.” Tom is hurt because, when she falls in love with Barty, Hatty seems to forget about him and is suddenly unable to see him any more. It’s because Mrs. Bartholomew’s focus is shifting in her memories, focusing more on remembering Barty than remembering Tom. The last time when Tom tries to go back in time, the garden is suddenly not there, and he crashes into the dust bins outside. His aunt and uncle think he was walking in his sleep, and Tom is depressed that Hatty seems like she’s gone forever. He learns the truth when Mrs. Bartholomew insists that he come upstairs and apologize for waking her by knocking over the dust bins.
Mrs. Bartholomew thought for years that Tom was some kind of ghost who became harder and harder to see as she got older, probably because, as she got older and started thinking about other things, like Barty, she wasn’t concentrating so much on Tom. The night when the garden didn’t appear, Mrs. Bartholomew was dreaming about her wedding, so she wasn’t thinking about the garden. When Tom crashed into the dust bins, he called out her name, and she woke up and recognized his voice. Tom is happy that Hatty remembered him all these years, that she didn’t deliberately forget him, and that she’s not dead or a ghost. Mrs. Bartholomew tells him about what happened in her life after to marriage to John Bartholomew/Barty. Hatty and her husband moved away from the house, and they had two sons, who both later died during World War I. She and her husband continued living together for many years, until his death, when she returned to the house where she’d grown up.
The Time Traveling
So, now you know who Hatty is, but what does the clock and its thirteen chimes have to do with her memories and Tom’s time traveling? The mechanics of the time traveling in time slip stories are rarely fully explained, but the characters do consider and discuss the possibilities. Part of it seems to involve the Biblical reference engraved on the clock about “Time no longer” from Rev. 10 1:6. I thought it was an interesting approach, bringing religious references into the story. When Tom tries to talk to his uncle about how time works, his uncle goes into scientific theories of time and gets annoyed with him when he tries to talk about the angel in the Bible. After talking to his aunt, Tom gets a sense that his uncle believes in a different version of “Truth”, and that makes it difficult to talk to him. Most of what his uncle says about more philosophical and scientific explanations of time goes over Tom’s head.
What Tom eventually figures out from bits and pieces of his uncle’s explanation and his own reflection about his time-traveling experiences, is that perspective matters in relation to time. He has his perspective of how time moves – he’s been traveling back to the garden every night for a few weeks during the summer. However, Hatty has her own perspective of time – Tom has appeared to her in the garden roughly every few months over a period of about ten years of her life. When Tom considers the situation from Hatty’s point of view, he decides that people’s individual experiences of time are just pieces of the much larger experience of time and history. This is the point when Tom realizes that neither he nor Hatty are ghosts, just two people whose experiences of time have crossed. When Tom enters into Hatty’s time, she perceives it as the present and him as a ghost because he’s outside of his natural time period and not fully a part of her present. Similarly, the maid appeared ghost-like to Tom at first because she had somewhat entered into Tom’s present before fading back to her present, appearing to vanish like a ghost. Time in the garden appears to jump around because Tom is entering into different sections of Hatty’s time. That’s why he sees the tree in the garden standing, then struck by lightning and fallen, and then standing again, and it’s also why he sees Hatty as being around his age, then younger, and then getting older. All of those things he sees are just sections of Hatty’s timeline that Tom experiences in isolation from each other, a different one every night.
Toward the end of the book, Tom tries to take advantage of the way time seems to stand still in his own time while he’s in the garden, so he can stay longer with Hatty. He thinks maybe he’ll stay for days or even forever, safe in the knowledge that time back home is standing still, and he can return there whenever he wants, enjoying carefree days of playing in the garden forever. However, he has not fully reckoned that time is still passing for Hatty even when it seems to pause for him while he’s in her time. Hatty has gradually grown up, and is moving forward with her life. She can’t stay a little girl, playing in the garden forever.
When Tom talks to the elderly Mrs. Bartholomew later, she observes that “nothing stands still, except in our memory.” When she was younger, she had always thought that the garden would stay the same forever, but it didn’t. She realized that when she saw the tree in the garden get struck by lightning. Everything changes, sometimes gradually, and sometimes suddenly, but time always moves forward. The property had been split up by her cousin James when he was having trouble with his business and needed money. He sold off pieces of land at a time, so parts of the garden were built over by new houses. Eventually, all that was left was the main house and part of the old yard. When James decided to sell off what was left and move to another country to start over, Hatty and Barty bought the old house and some of Hatty’s favorite things, including the grandfather clock. Hatty admits to Tom that she used to intentionally misunderstand what time it was chiming on the clock and often got up extra early in the morning to go play in the garden. This is apparently the source of the clock’s weird chimes that don’t match the real hour. The clock is now connected to Hatty’s memories of the house and the garden, and Hatty’s memories are what controlled what time it was in the garden when Tom made his nightly visits.
Old Hatty was controlling the timing of Tom’s visits through her memories, although young Hatty was unaware of it. However, Tom realizes that even old Hatty wasn’t completely in control, either. Old Hatty comments that this summer, she’s thought of the garden far more than she ever had before and how much she wanted someone to play with when she was little. Tom realizes that old Hatty is describing his desires. When he first came to his aunt and uncle, he was bored and lonely and just wanted to play with someone, like he would have with his brother in their garden. It seems like Tom’s mood influenced Mrs. Bartholomew’s memories and dreams of the past, and their shared wish for friendship produced the midnight garden, so they could play there again.
In the end, Tom decides that “Time no longer” means that both the past and the present are both real and connected, not separate from each other, just as he and Hatty were always both real and connected to each other through their sharing of the same time. They were not separated by time but joined each other in it.
According to Wikipedia, the theory of how time works in this story is based on a book called An Experiment with Time by J. W. Dunne. When he was young during the late 19th century, Dunne had dreams that seemed to be visions of the future, seeing himself flying in a sort of airplane before airplanes had even been invented. He eventually became an airplane designer, and he also theorized about the nature of time. Dunne’s theory of time, called serialism, postulates that human beings are only conscious of traveling along a base timeline, where we experience the past, present, and future of our physical lives, but that there is also a higher level of time that can be experienced by a higher level of the mind or human spirit. Part of his theory states that, while people eventually die a physical death in the lower timeline, their spirit or consciousness lives on in the higher timeline for eternity. This is partly the conclusion Tom comes to when he starts seeing his time and Hatty’s as being part of some bigger timeline, and it’s referenced by the phrases “time no longer” and “exchanged time for eternity.”
In the Circle of Time by Margaret J. Anderson, 1979.
This is the second book in the In the Keep of Time Trilogy. There are a couple of characters from the first book that appear in this one, but most are new.
Robert lives on his family’s farm outside of a small town in Scotland. He loves to draw, but his father doesn’t think much of Robert’s art. He wants Robert to take over the family farm when he’s grown, especially since Robert’s older brother, Duncan, disappeared two years earlier. Everyone assumes that Duncan just got tired of the farm and ran off to the city to find work, but Robert has trouble believing that. Duncan always loved Robert and looked after him, and Robert can’t believe that Duncan would just run off without even telling him.
One day, Robert goes to the ancient circle of stones that stands near his town, known as the Stones of Arden, to draw before school. There, he happens to meet Jennifer, an American girl who has recently moved to the area because her father is working in the nearby city. Jennifer has an interest in archeology, and she points out to Robert that there are depressions where there used to be stones in the middle of the circle that aren’t standing anymore. She persuades Robert to help her do a little digging to see if they can find them. As they dig, a strange fog comes in, and Jennifer sees a vision of dark-haired people also digging. However, no one is really there because the ground where they were digging is undisturbed. Robert doesn’t see the people, but he believes Jennifer when she tells him what she saw. There are a lot of strange stories about the stones, and Robert has heard many of them from his grandfather.
Jennifer, although spooked by what she saw, refuses to believe any superstitious stories. She persuades Robert to come back to the stones with her so that she can take another look at them. However, when they do, the strange fog comes, and the kids suddenly find themselves many years in the future.
The kids learn where (or when) they are when they meet a boy named Karten, who was digging in the spot where Jennifer had seen him digging in her earlier vision. He tells them that the year is 2179 (two hundred years after the book was written). The kids can suddenly hear the sound of the ocean from the stones when they couldn’t before, and when they ask about it, Karten tells them that the polar ice caps melted in the 21st century, raising the level of the ocean and bringing the water much closer to the stones.
The future is a harsh place, and Karten fears the people he calls “the Barbaric Ones.” The Barbaric Ones are people from “across the sea” who, as Karten and his people explain, “have retained the ways of people who lived long ago. They are interested in wealth and machines and factories.” The problem is that resources are in short supply, so the Barbaric Ones kidnap people to use as slaves, gathering as much of the scarce resources as they can to sustain their standard of living. Karten and his people don’t want to fight the Barbaric Ones if they can avoid it because they have lost people who tried to fight them and because they believe in the values of love and trust above all.
Jennifer is quick to insist that she and Robert return to the stones where they entered this strange and disturbing future, but Robert persuades her to stay awhile and meet more of Karten’s people. Karten particularly tells them about an older woman who told him before about other people from the past who came to their time (the kids from the first book in the series), and Robert is hopeful that this woman will not only be able to tell them how to get home but maybe also what happened to his brother, Duncan. Robert has started to suspect that when Duncan suddenly disappeared, he may have come to the this time period the same way he and Jennifer did and may still be there.
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.
I don’t generally go in for dystopian novels because I find them depressing. The real world has enough problems without trying to imagine new and worse ones. However, I do find it interesting that this book, which was written a few years before I was born, has a vision of the future that specifically addresses things that are of major concern to people in the early 21st century. It imagines that the polar ice caps have melted and the sea level has risen. Many of the old coastal cities are gone, and there are new cities and communities in areas where there weren’t before.
Because of what’s happened, the world’s population has separated into two parts that have different ways of coping with the situation. The “Barbaric Ones” are much more technology-oriented, but what makes them barbaric is the way they exploit other people to serve their purposes and support the lifestyle that they want to maintain, which is much harder to maintain in this new future. Karten’s people, on the other hand, have developed a more old-fashioned, communal style of living. In fact, it’s unusually communal, to the point where young children are raised collectively by the adults of the community, nobody really knowing or caring about who their birth parents are. When children are nine years old, they select families they want to join, usually because of similar interests they have, and are raised as children of that family. Karten also likes art, and so he joined a family of artists.
These two types of societies are extreme in their views and lifestyles, polar opposites of each other, and neither is really the sort of society that Jennifer or Robert want to be part of. Jennifer is unnerved that people in Karten’s society don’t really know or care who their parents are and just kind of pick families for themselves without attachment to their birth parents. It just seems unnatural to her. Karten explains that their view is that children belong to the community as a whole. If everyone is part of the same big community, what does it matter who they live with? Their concept of marriage or partnership is never fully explained, but there don’t seem to be any rules or even social conventions about who can live with whom. One girl, called Lara Avara, tells Jennifer that her chosen parental figures/mentors are a pair of women, which surprises Jennifer, who thinks of family in terms of mothers and fathers, one of each per family. However, the future people have a different concept of family that seems to be centered more around sharing personal interests, with no particular conventions around how the family should be shaped. The chosen parental figures/mentors raise the younger members who chose to join their family, teaching them skills and professions they have mastered, according to their interests. It is not explained in the story if these older women are or were married or lovers, and it doesn’t seem to be important to any of the characters in the story, either. Lara Avara just tells Jennifer, “There cannot be rules deciding whom you love and from whom you learn.” I see one disadvantage to not knowing who one’s parents and full-blooded siblings are because there would be no way to ensure against incest, which is worrisome because that tends to bring out certain genetic health problems and weakens the genetic pool of the community, especially if it goes on for generations (unless this society has thought of that and just doesn’t mention their solution during the course of the story – maybe the elders of the community who remember who has the same birth parents and who doesn’t will intervene if siblings try to match up with each other). In some ways, Robert is attracted to this style of life because it would make things easier for him. In his own time, his family undervalues his artistic gifts and his unpleasant, temperamental father forces him to do hard physical labor on the family farm. There are times when Robert would love to exchange his problematic family for one that would help him hone his craft and appreciate his personal talents.
For awhile, Jennifer worries that Robert likes these future people so much that he wants to stay there, and she’ll be stuck in the future with him. Unlike Robert, Jennifer is close to her family and happy in their time, and she wants to go home. The two of them are accidentally separated from each other when a character from the previous book in the series (Ollie) brings Robert back to their own time without Jennifer, through the tower that the previous set of characters had used for their time travels. As Robert figures out how to rescue Jennifer from the future, he discovers the truth about Duncan, who has not traveled through time at all (although it looked like that was the way the story was going to go) but really did run away from home, as people thought he did. Like Robert, Duncan was also unhappy about their home life. Although Duncan is better suited to the farm work than Robert, he also found life there stifling, constantly having to work for their father and deal with his angry moods. Their father’s attitude problems are what makes the farm life difficult for both boys, and Duncan also seems to have been feeling overworked and unappreciated. Although life as a teenage runaway has been difficult for Duncan, he has at least managed to find work (paid, unlike the farm work he was doing for his father, and payment is a monetary form of appreciation as well as providing the worker with a living) and the freedom to begin building a life of his own.
Rescuing Jennifer means returning to the stone circle where their time travels began. After Jennifer returns home to their time, she and Robert talk about their experiences. They feel badly that they were not able to help the future people more with their problems and dangers, but Robert says that maybe what’s important is what they’ve learned from the experience themselves and how it’s changed them. Their problems (just like Robert’s brother, Duncan) have always been in their own time, and they have to live their lives in the present. What they do in the present may also change the future and help make it a better place. By the end of the book, Duncan returns to his family’s farm to tell his parents that he’s all right. Duncan will not work on the farm again, as he once did, but he decides to take a new job nearby and help out on the weekends, which will make things easier for Robert. Their family has some healing to do. A talk with Robert’s grandfather also reveals that other members of Robert’s family have traveled through time in the stone circle, and although Robert’s grandfather did his time traveling many years earlier, the vision he got of the future was actually after Robert and Jennifer’s adventures. They can tell that it was further along in time by the people and things he saw, and it reassures them that their future friends will be all right in spite of everything.
The kids are studying the history of their New England town in school. McGurk studies witchcraft trials, and he is outraged at how innocent people could be charged with witchcraft on little evidence and sentenced to death. When their teacher tells them that she has learned that a young girl was once put on trial for witchcraft in their town 300 years ago, McGurk convinces the others to try to use their “little black boxes” from the previous book in the series to go back in time and try to save the girl.
The girl, Hester Bidgood, is thirteen years old and turns out to be the goddaughter of Gwyneth, one of their friends from their last fantasy adventure. Gwyneth is now very old, but she remembers them and welcomes them into her home. A man in their community, Jacob Peabody, is trying to pressure Gwyneth into selling him her property. He is the one who brings charges of witchcraft against Hester. Hester calls herself an “investigatrix,” meaning that she is a detective, like the kids in the McGurk organization. She knows some disreputable things that Peabody has done, and Peabody wants to keep her quiet as well as force Gwyneth to give up her property. The McGurk organization is determined to save Hester, but they must be careful not to make anyone think that they might also be witches.
Of course, that turns out to be difficult because all of the modern-day members of the McGurk Organization have magical black boxes.
Hester has a friend called Rob McGregor who was captured and raised by Indians when he was young. Although he now lives with his grandparents, he still has habits and skills that he learned from the Indians, and Hester likes to call him by his Indian name, Blazing Scalp (because of his red hair). I expected that Rob would turn out to be some ancestor of McGurk’s, just like the last book had a definite McGurk ancestor, because he has that distinctive red hair, but if there’s a connection, it isn’t definite.
Rob knows that Hester has learned that Peabody earned his fortune by cheating at cards and that he is hiding a mysterious guest in his house. Rob saves Hester when the people in the town try to conduct the water trial, seeing whether she will float or sink in water to determine whether or not she is a witch. Then, Rob and Hester hide in Rob’s secret lodge in the swamp while the McGurk organization tricks the man hiding in Peabody’s house into revealing himself.
The man, who has been going by the name Mica Holroyd, is really Matthew Hopkins, a former witch hunter who has been charged with witchcraft himself and is now a fugitive from the law. Once everyone in town realizes that Peabody is dishonest and harboring a fugitive, they know that the charges against Hester were false. Peabody and Hopkins are both sent back to England, never to return. When the McGurk organization returns to its own time, they learn that Rob and Hester eventually married and that the town gave Hester property that used to belong to Peabody as compensation for accusing her of witchcraft. Hester started a home for orphans and elderly people, which is now a retirement community in the kids’ town.
There is another book in the series which focuses on Rob and Hester alone, without the members of the McGurk Organization.
The Case of the Dragon in Distress by E. W. Hildick, 1991.
The McGurk organization start getting interested in the Middle Ages when they acquire a round table, which reminds them of King Arthur’s Round Table, and they begin studying the Middle Ages in school. Shortly after that, Brains buys a set of walkie-talkies at a fire sale. At first, they don’t work, but Brains tinkers with them until he can get them to send and receive. The strange thing is that they only seem to work well at night.
One night, the organization decides to test them, and somehow, they are transported into the Middle Ages. A strange voice speaks to them through their “little black boxes” and sends them on a quest that takes them to the castle of Princess Melisande the Bad. The castle is supposedly guarded by a dragon, but it is really a couple of servants in a dragon costume. Like many others in the castle, they are prisoners of Princess Melisande, who appears young and sweet, but is actually evil. She uses the dragon story to lure brave men to the castle so that she can imprison them and drink their blood. She has leeches put on them, and then she eats the leeches. That is how she maintains her youth, even though she is ancient. Among her prisoners are the king’s son, Prince Geoffrey, and the young chief of the McGurk clan from Ireland, who may be a distant ancestor of Jack P. McGurk.
When the members of the McGurk Organization arrive at the castle, everyone is amazed by their strange appearance, modern clothes, and the little black boxes that talk. Even Princess Melisande is in awe of them, but the McGurk in her prison is weakening, and she may be planning to replace him with the McGurk from modern times.
The two servants who were pretending to be the dragon, Gareth and his sister Gwyneth, are also time travelers, but they are from the 17th century. They were brought to the Middle Ages after drinking a potion that was supposed to cure them of a fever. In their own era, they live close to the castle where they are now imprisoned, and they know that there is a secret passage that leads out of the castle from the dungeon. The kids develop a plan to sneak out of the castle under the dragon costume, but they are caught and thrown in the dungeon. They try the secret passage, not knowing if the path goes all the way through. It does, and they make it to the king’s camp. When they tell the king that Princess Melisande has his son, the king plans to storm the castle and free the prisoners. McGurk says that their mission is accomplished, and the voice from their little black boxes says that it’s time for them to go home. Everyone wakes up in their own beds, as if nothing had happened. They believe that the walkie-talkies are responsible for what happened, but they aren’t quite sure if they actually went back in time or merely dreamed that they did. There is some evidence that they really went back in time, but it isn’t answered definitely.
I liked this book as a kid, although it’s a little bizarre because most of the books in this series are just mysteries involving a group of neighborhood friends that take place contemporary to when the books were written. There is usually nothing magical or supernatural about the books in this series, and it’s kind of a weird departure from the usual format. There is another book after this one that continues their time traveling adventures.
This is the final book in the Indian in the Cupboard series. At the end of the previous book, Omri’s father has learned the secret of Omri’s special cupboard and key, that it brings small plastic figures to life.
At the beginning of this book, Omri’s father suddenly announces to his family that he wants to take them on a camping trip. It seems like an impulsive decision because this isn’t something that the family usually does, and Omri figures that it must have something to do with the secret that the father and son now share concerning their small friends from the past.
After Omri’s father discovered his secret, the two of them had a serious talk, and Omri explained to him all about his past adventures and the very real consequences that they’ve had, both in the present and in the past. They need to consider carefully what they’re going to do because Little Bear has asked them for help with some trouble that his tribe in the past is having with the British. Knowing the history of the interactions between Europeans and Native Americans, both Omri and his father know that something serious is about to happen to Little Bear and his people, but how can they help? Omri explains to his father that they have the ability to go back into the past themselves, but in order to do that, they need to find something big enough to hold both of them, and someone else would have to turn the key for them to send them and bring them back.
Omri’s father later admits to him privately that he thought up the camping trip as a way for the two of them to disappear for a couple of days without anyone asking questions. Although he proposed the camping trip, he plans to arrange for him and Omri to have a private trip by themselves, discouraging the others from going along. Omri’s father also thinks that he’s figured out what they can use to send themselves back in time – the family car. It’s big enough to hold both of them, it locks with a key, and there’s even an LB in the license plate number, which they take as a hopeful sign. But then, Omri realizes that there’s a problem with that scheme. Even though the car locks with a key, it’s not the kind of lock that an old-fashioned skeleton key could open. They need a key with a different shape, something flatter. They decide that they need the help of Jessica Charlotte, who made the last key. Fortunately, Omri has a way to talk to her because he has the plastic figure of Jessica Charlotte.
When Omri brings Jessica Charlotte back, he finds that she has attempted to drown herself in a river (an event hinted at in the last book) because of her guilt at causing her sister’s husband’s death. Omri brings back a WWII Matron who has helped them before to treat Jessica Charlotte. When Jessica Charlotte recovers, she thinks at first that she must have died and that Omri is part of her afterlife. Omri assures her that it’s not the case, that she’s still alive. She is still lamenting over having caused Matt’s death and ruined her sister and niece’s lives, but Omri explains to her that he’s Lottie’s grandson. Jessica Charlotte feels better, hearing that Lottie grew up, married, and had children, so her life wasn’t completely ruined. Omri can’t bring himself to explain how Lottie was killed in a bombing during WWII, but he asks for her help to create a new key. Aunt Jessie, as she asks to be called, agrees to help Omri, and he and his father give her their car key to duplicate.
However, when Aunt Jessie returns with the key, they realize that they’ve miscalculated. When a person comes from the past with anything they make or bring with them, it’s always small, like the miniature people themselves. Aunt Jessie’s key is a duplicate of the key they gave her, but it’s small, too small to use in the car. Omri and his father aren’t sure how to get around this problem, so they decide to go on the camping trip with Omri’s brother Gillon, just camping like normal, while they think it over.
It turns out that something magic happened to the car key while it was in the past with Aunt Jessie. When Omri’s father turns the key in the car, Omri suddenly finds himself in the past, but not the past he was hoping to visit. Because they brought some things that belonged to his Great-Grandfather Matt with them on the camping trip, Omri suddenly finds himself in India, during the time that Matt was living there. Omri is inside a puppet in a marketplace, and his great-grandfather buys him. Also, to Omri’s shock, Gillon is also inside a puppet that his grandfather has.
Their mother eventually rescues them by opening the car and turning the key. She was alarmed because it seemed like her husband and sons all passed out in the car. Omri and his father don’t have a real explanation for her, not wanting to explain that the car key is now magic. (She decides that there must have been an exhaust leak, and they were all overcome by fumes.) Gillon was knocked unconscious when his puppet was dropped on its head, and his mother takes him to the hospital, using her spare car key. (When Gillon recovers, he thinks it was just a weird dream he had because of the car fumes.) Meanwhile, Omri and his father talk about the situation, and Omri’s father reveals that, while the boys were taken to India, he ended up in Little Bear’s time because he was carrying some wampum belonging to Little Bear.
So, know they know that it’s possible for them to use their car key to go back in time, but if they try it a second time, who will turn the key for them to bring them back at the appropriate time? The only other person who can come with them on their “camping trip” who knows their secret and can be trusted to help them is Omri’s friend, Patrick. However, Patrick isn’t happy that he’s only there to help Omri and his father go back in time and that he won’t be going himself. He does agree to help them, but unfortunately, he has plans of his own while Omri and his father are occupied elsewhere.
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).
Although Omri’s father wonders at first whether it’s a good idea to try to help Little Bear because of the risk of changing the past and affecting the future, Omri has learned that it’s not quite as simple as that. During his previous adventures, he has felt an irresistible pull to use the cupboard and the key, even when he wasn’t always sure it was a good idea, and there are indications that Omri’s interactions with people in other time periods seem fated to happen. He did save Jessica Charlotte’s life when she tried to drown herself, and other things Omri has done seem to fit with wider events.
When Omri and his father are figuring out how to help Little Bear with his problems with the British in his time, they do some research about Little Bear’s time and talk about the ways that 18th century British people treated Native Americans. Knowing what Little Bear is likely to face, they feel like they have a responsibility to help him as best they can. When Little Bear explains in more detail what his people have been suffering at the hands of the British and other settlers, Omri feels guilty, knowing that he’s also British, while at the same time knowing that he was not responsible for things that happened before he was born. This is something that people still struggle with today, hearing about difficult periods of history and knowing that their ancestors (or at least other members of their society, if not literally their direct ancestors) played a role in making life difficult for others, setting up situations where real people suffered or were killed. The best Omri can do is to help Little Bear make the best possible decisions to ensure the survival of his people. Of course, being able to help with that much is part of the time traveling fantasy of this story. Real people can’t actually go back in time and intervene to influence others and change the course of history.
The books in this series aren’t for young children, and as the series progresses, they get more serious in subject matter. There is discussion of suicide, not just with Jessica Charlotte’s attempt to drown herself but when Little Bear explains that his first wife killed herself after being raped by white men. There is violence in the story when the Native American village is attacked and people are shot. Overall, the story is pretty straight-forward in the way in confronts the dark sides of history. Omri and his father advise Little Bear to take his clan to a place where they know that they will be relatively safe and among other Iroquois, but they know and admit to Little Bear that even that won’t solve all of their problems and that there will be other hardships in the future. It’s an imperfect solution to a massive problem, but Omri senses that it is best choice that they could make and that Little Bear and his family will live the safest possible life because of the decision they made, and their descendants will survive.
Omri and his father struggle with knowing that things are going to be hard for Little Bear’s people no matter what choices they make. There is no magical solution to everyone’s problems in the story, and the book doesn’t offer a firm moral or solution to Omri’s guilty feelings when he sees firsthand how badly Native Americans were treated (a form of “white guilt“, although the book doesn’t use that term). Overall, I would say that the book confronts the dark parts of history and human guilt on a very individual level. Omri and his father can’t solve the large issues completely because they can’t control them. They can’t control the past, and they can’t control other people, even the people who come through the cupboard as miniature ones, like living toys. Everyone is an individual with their own choices to make, and every choice, even the wrong ones, changes the course of history.
After Omri saves Jessica Charlotte’s life, she realizes that what she thought was a dream before she stole her sister’s earrings was real, that she saw and spoke to Omri, and that he could have warned her about what would happen if she went through with her theft, how Matt would have died and how everyone’s lives would be changed for the worse. However, Omri did choose not to warn her because not everything was changed for the worse. After Lottie’s father died and her family lost their money, Lottie still grew up, fell in love, got married, and had a daughter. It’s true that she did die young in World War II, while her daughter was still an infant, and changing the theft of the earrings might have changed that in some way, but not without changing other things. Omri has discovered that changing things about the past, even seemingly small things, can change larger parts of history, and his psychic gift seems to guide him toward making only choices that help the flow of history instead of working against it. If he had prevented the theft of the earrings, his great-grandfather might have lived longer and so might Lottie, but if that happened, would Lottie have ever met the man she eventually married and had Omri’s mother? Omri’s father wouldn’t be happy without his wife and sons, and if Omri never existed, would some of the other things he did that impacted history have happened? Also, if Lottie hadn’t died in the bombing during WWII, would someone else have been where she happened to be and died in her place? The bomb that killed her would have fallen anyway because that was part of someone else’s choices, a person who never enters this story and whose decisions can’t be controlled. Time and history and the ripple effects caused by individual choices are complex. Omri has his psychic gift to guide him, and even his father, who admits that he never used to believe anything he couldn’t see for himself, comes to trust it.
People without this sort of magical gift have only themselves to rely on to make the best choices they can to make the world as good as possible, even in the face of others’ bad decisions. I think that a large part of the choices that Omri makes in the story and dealing with “white guilt” in real life come down to the combination of frustration and the acceptance of choices made by other people who can’t be controlled. Modern people might hate what happened in the past and feel badly if people related to them were part of it, but we don’t have the option to change things that have already happened. There comes a point where you have to accept the knowledge that you can’t control others, no matter how much you might want to make better choices on their behalf. The only person you can control is yourself.
I’m a white person, descended from colonial settlers in America, and I don’t actually see “white guilt” as a negative thing. I see it as a human thing. If you can feel real emotion at someone else’s plight, a wish that bad things didn’t really happen, or a feeling that they shouldn’t have happened, it means that you’re a real, thinking, feeling human being with a sense of right and wrong, and there’s nothing bad about that at all. Feelings are just tools, to give us hints of what we need to do or how we need to behave in our lives. Feelings aren’t always completely accurate, but sometimes, they give us hints of things that need to be fixed or clues that whatever we did before didn’t really work. I think what upsets and confuses other white people about “white guilt” is the conflict between loving ancestors and wanting to be proud of them and admitting that some of them had a real dark side and did some pretty awful things. Some people have trouble dealing with that, thinking that it’s impossible to feel two things at once, loving someone and being angry with them for things that they’ve done, but it really is. Feelings are complex, as complex as people are, and I think it’s as possible for a person to both like and hate another person for the things they’ve done as it is to both like a sweater for the way it looks but not want to wear it because it’s itchy and uncomfortable. I think that’s about the best advice that I can actually offer to other white people trying to make sense of that feeling. Sure, that sweater looks pretty impressive. It has a nice color and a cheerful pattern, and you might think it would look impressive on you if you wore it, but honestly, it’s better if you just leave it on the mannequin. It’s overpriced, out of style, and won’t look at all impressive when it makes you constantly want to scratch all of the places where it itches. Let it go.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
The frustrating thing about feelings about the past and about other people’s lives is that we can’t fix those particular things. In real life, we can’t go back in time, and we can’t even “fix” other people in our own time because that’s something they have to do themselves. You can suggest things to other people, but there’s always a point where they have to make the decisions themselves. But, the good news is that, if you can’t control other people, nobody can completely control you! The way I see it, the most useful thing about this “white guilt” is remembering that this is something we don’t want. Maybe there’s something charming about the rosy, nostalgic view of the past, but honestly, you wouldn’t be happy living there, and if you actually had to live with your ancestors, you’d probably discover that you wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things and maybe wouldn’t even get along at all. So, why would you want to try to carry their old baggage with you into your life and spend your life and your precious time constantly trying to explain or excuse their bad choices? You’ve got your own to life. Give credit where credit is due for both the good and the bad things, and let our ancestors’ records speak for themselves. You won’t accomplish anything for twisting your feelings into knots for trying to protect the feelings of the dead and justify their actions. They don’t even feel anything anymore. They are dead. Let them rest. We don’t want to add to bad things that have been done in the past and to keep having things in our lives to feel guilty about, and that’s okay because there are new choices to be made every single day. Put your focus there. You have a present to live and a future to plan. Knowing about the past is interesting and informative, but the past isn’t where we really live. Admire it like a nice sweater on a mannequin, take note of the price tag, and move on. We don’t have to make the same old choices that have made people, including ourselves, unhappy just because that’s the way things have been before or because we feel like we have something to prove about our ancestors. They had their chance to make the choices in their time, for good or bad (and frequently, some of each, but you can’t help that), and now, it’s our turn to make the choices because this is our time.
Speaking of bad decisions, Patrick almost gets Boone and Ruby killed because of his recklessness when he brings them back while Omri and his father were with Little Bear, which he did just because he was bored and felt left out of their magical adventure, which wasn’t really pleasant and fun for them anyway. Boone and Ruby both make it clear how they feel about that, and Omri also makes it clear that this is the end of the magic for him and Patrick. Boone and Little Bear have their own lives to live, and Omri’s gift tells him that it’s time to let them get on with living their lives without interference. Omri still has the cupboard and the key, but he no longer feels the pull he felt before to use them because he has played his part in history and in the lives of his little friends, and there is nothing more he needs to do. He doesn’t feel the need to lock these things away as he did before because he already knows that he will never feel the urge to use them again. When something’s over and the moment has passed, you just know.
Before the end of the story, Omri’s mother admits to him that she knows all about the little figures and that the cupboard brought them to life, although she never actually saw any of them herself. She has also inherited the family gift and is aware of what the cupboard does, even though she has not used it herself. All along, she’s been pretending that she didn’t know what was going on, although she really did. She’s a little sorry that she didn’t see the little people herself, but she knew that not interfering was the right thing to do. She thinks that letting the magic go and not using the cupboard again are the right decisions, and she doesn’t want Omri or his father to tell Omri’s bothers about the magic because, if they do, it will never end, and it’s really time for it to all end. This really is the final book in the series.
This book immediately picks up where the last book in the series left off, with Omri injured after witnessing the battle in Little Bear’s time and he and Patrick and their small army having just fended off the gang of local hoodlums who had tried to break into Omri’s house and rob it. Omri’s parents return home from the party they had attended and are appalled to see Omri hurt, although the story of the burglary covers up the real reason for Omri’s injuries, which the boys don’t think they can tell Omri’s parents. Omri still can’t adequately explain how part of his head got burned, but he makes up a story about him and Patrick trying to light a bonfire and accidentally getting burned. His parents are occupied, alternately angry with the babysitter who was supposed to come and didn’t and with themselves for leaving before they were sure that she had arrived. The police come to question the boys and inform the parents that the reason why the babysitter didn’t come was that she was mugged that night. Omri knows who the thieves are, but hesitates to turn them in.
First, Omri needs to deal with Little Bear and his band of warriors. Some of them were killed in the battle, and others are injured. Patrick and Omri bring the Matron who treated Little Bear before to life to help them, but although she does her best, she says that her skills aren’t adequate to help them all and that they need a real surgeon. The Matron is sharp and tells the boys that it’s useless to insist that this is all just a dream because she knows that, strange as this situation is, it’s all real and that the death and pain she’s witnessed around her are real. The boys explain to her about the key and cupboard that bring plastic figures to life, and she asks them if they can get a doctor. It’s Sunday, so the boys can’t just go buy one, but the Matron came from a set owned by Patrick’s cousin, Tamsin, and there were other medical professional figures in it. When Patrick’s other cousin, Tamsin’s twin, Emma, comes to Omri’s house to see Patrick, Omri is forced to let her in on the secret and recruit her to help him.
Meanwhile, Patrick has gone back in time with Boone the cowboy. In Boone’s time, Patrick is tiny, the size of the figures in his own time. Unfortunately, Patrick made a terrible mistake by going back to Boone’s time with Boone as a plastic figure. That meant that Boone became a real person in the chest, trapped under Patrick’s body and almost smothered to death and needs to be treated by the Matron in order to survive.
In Boone’s time, tiny Patrick ends up in the company of Ruby Lou, a woman who likes Boone. Patrick knows that Boone is unconscious in the desert and helps Ruby Lou to find him. The doctor in their time doesn’t know what’s wrong with Boone and can’t figure out why he’s unconscious, suggesting only that they let him rest for the present and recover. Ruby Lou presses Patrick for answers, and he explains everything to her about how they travel through time using the magic key and how Boone has just left his full-size body behind to go into the future in the form of a little figurine. It’s an incredible story, but Ruby Lou believes him and expresses concern about getting Boone back safely. But soon, they’re all in trouble when there’s cyclone threatening.
Also meanwhile, Mr. Johnson, the headmaster of Omri’s school, has learned about Omri’s story that won the contest. Back in the first book of this series, Mr. Johnson actually saw Little Bear. At the time, he thought that he was hallucinating, but Omri’s supposedly fictional story has now convinced him that he really saw what he saw. He demands that Omri tell him the truth about his “Red Indian.” (Omri corrects him, saying that it isn’t right to say “Red Indian” and that they prefer to be called “American Indian” or “native American”, but Mr. Johnson angrily insists that he’s always said “Red Indian” and will continue to do so, establishing him as an unsympathetic villain in the story.) Mr. Johnson is relieved to know that he wasn’t hallucinating before, but since Omri is reluctant to explain anything, he decides to call Omri’s mother. When she answers, she demands that Omri tell her where Patrick is because his mother is frantically looking for him.
Of course, Omri knows that Patrick is still in the trunk in his room, in a coma-like state because he’s still in the past and there are living miniature people in his room who will also be discovered if people start searching. Can Omri fix everything in time to rescue Patrick and his little friends and prevent their secret from being exposed?
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).
Although the story takes place immediately after the previous one left off, the rules of the magic in this world have changed a little. Before, when a person from Omri and Patrick’s time went back to the past, they kind of became part of the scenery. This time, when Patrick visits the Old West, he is there as a tiny person, although no figurines of the boys exist in the past. What this book does emphasize is that the magic key does change real people from modern times into little people into people in another time and real people from other times into tiny people in modern times. At this point in the series, it’s all still mysterious why the key is magic and why the little cupboard in particular only seems to affect plastic items and people. Some of those explanations come in the next book.
I did like the parts where other people, including Patrick’s cousin Emma and Mr. Johnson in the present and Ruby Lou in the past, catch on what’s happening with Omri and Patrick and their plastic figures. In so many children’s books, the magic absolutely depends on secrecy. In this series, Patrick and Omri both know that they don’t want most people to know their secret because they don’t want people either interfering or thinking that they’re crazy. With Patrick disappearing mysteriously and other things happening because of their interactions with the little people from the past, it makes sense that people would start noticing that the boys have become involved in something really strange, even thought some of them don’t know what it is. However, the magic still works for them even when other people find out and the people who could pose a threat to their activities either never find out the truth or are distracted or apparently discredited.
At the end of this book, Omri becomes more serious about the risks of the cupboard and decides that he wants the key put away, to be give to his future children in the event of his death. However, there are other books in this series to come, so they do use the key again.
Twelve-year-old Winnie Brown loves mazes, and she is very surprised when one shows up among all the other graffiti on the schoolyard. The maze is painted on the ground in silver and is big enough for a person to walk through. Winnie and her friend, Harry, try to walk the maze, but it makes them dizzy at first. Then, a cat they’ve befriended finds its way to the center of the maze and disappears right before their eyes!
When Winnie tries to tell her mother about it, her mother doesn’t really pay attention. Although Winnie and Harry try to explain it away as an optical illusion of some kind, Winnie is still convinced that there is something strange about the maze. She feels drawn to it, and she tries to walk it one more time, even though Harry is afraid.
The next thing Winnie knows is that she’s in a hedge maze. She faints, and when she wakes up, she finds that she is being cared for by members of the Taylor family, who owned a large house in the area about a hundred years ago.
Somehow, Winnie must find the path through the maze again in order to go back home. According to the Taylors’ creepy housekeeper, Violet Minot, the only person who really knows the maze is the mazemaker, a distant cousin of hers who disappeared many years ago. Winnie wants very badly to return to her own time, but she fears that Mrs. Minot may have diabolical plans of her own for the mazemaker.
Winnie learns that a couple hundred years before the time of the Taylors and Mrs. Minot, a cousin of Mrs. Minot’s family came to live with them. He was an orphan, and the father of the family liked him better than his sons because he was a good worker, and they were trouble-makers. The cousin, William Sparrow, was afraid of his cousins because he knew they were jealous of him. His grandmother was a witch, and she had taught him a little magic about mazes, like the one that was made near the village in England where he grew up. William built the maze and used its magic to escape from his cousins, who were about to kill him. He came to the Taylors’ time, when the maze had been built into a hedge maze and found work as the Taylors’ groundskeeper.
However, even though William was not murdered by his cousins, they were blamed for his disappearance and looked at with suspicion for the rest of their lives. The locals, having noted their hostility toward their cousin, believed that they probably murdered William and hid his body somewhere. In the end, they were silently judged for the crime that they wanted to commit but didn’t actually commit because they never had the chance to do it. In a way, it’s a kind of justice, although Violet Minot doesn’t see it that way.
Violet Minot, one of their descendants, has been searching for years for the secret to the maze. She believed that if her ancestors hadn’t been blamed for William’s disappearance, her family might have owned the big house and the estate around it. She recognized William when he appeared in her time and threatened to tell everyone in the village who he was if he didn’t share the secrets of the maze with her. To escape her, William went through the maze again and ended up in Winnie’s time. He painted the maze on the ground where it was supposed to be, although it had been covered up by concrete for the schoolyard. Then, William was picked up by the police for defacing public property. His cat roamed the area and made friends with Winnie and Harry.
When Winnie goes back in time through the maze, Violet tries to use her to learn the secrets of the maze. Winnie eventually figures out how to get home because Violet’s great-aunt tells her that there should be an extra turn in the maze, one that isn’t marked, which she made by accident before. Can Winnie and William both outwit Violet and get back to the times where they both belong? Where does William even belong? If he can’t go back to where he came from, where should he go?
The story ends happily and something that Winnie knows from her time settles the matter of where William should live the rest of his life. There is one person in time who loves him and never stopped looking for him when he disappeared from her time. William’s time quandary and the existence of his magic maze have accidentally trapped other people in time, and when he resolves his problem and decides where he really belongs, he is able to free the others who were trapped and put an end to the magic.
Charlotte Mary Makepeace is a new student at a boarding school in England. The school is big and confusing, and there are so many new people to meet that she immediately feels overwhelmed. Starting life at a new school can be intimidating for anyone, but things are about to get particularly strange for Charlotte.
An older girl, Sarah, helps Charlotte to find her room and choose a bed, recommending a bed by the window. Charlotte is a little puzzled at why Sarah singled her out and helped her, and the other girls are jealous that she got to the room first and got first choice of the beds. Still, Charlotte is grateful. She is exhausted, and she feels like she isn’t herself. When she wakes up in the morning, she really isn’t herself.
The room where Charlotte sleeps is called the “Cedar” room, and when she first enters the room, the name puzzles her because there are no cedars nearby. However, when Charlotte wakes up in the morning, there is suddenly a large cedar outside the window. The tree did not grow during the night. In Charlotte’s time, the cedar is gone, but Charlotte is now back in the past, when the cedar was still there. Things in the room are arranged differently, although Charlotte’s bed is still in the same place, and instead of seeing her roommates, Charlotte finds herself alone with a girl she has never seen before, who calls her “Clare.”
Charlotte is very confused. Earlier, she was feeling like she wasn’t herself, and now she has the sense that maybe she has really become someone else. Charlotte doesn’t notice any differences about herself in the mirror, but the other girl doesn’t seem to notice that she’s not Clare, whoever Clare is. The girl just keeps talking to Charlotte as if they already know each other. The other girl’s name is Emily, and it turns out that she is Clare’s younger sister. Charlotte finds herself feeling toward Emily the way that she feels toward her own sister, Emma.
Charlotte is forced to go through the rest of the day, her first at boarding school, as Clare. People keep talking about “the war,” and Charlotte doesn’t know what war they mean at first. When she went to bed, it was the 1960s. At the end of a very confusing day, she returns to bed in the Cedar room, where she finds a diary with the name “Clare Mary Moby” written on it and the date, September 14, 1918. The diary really makes Charlotte realize that she has spent the entire day in the past, and she further realizes that the war everyone was talking about is World War I. However, there is nothing else for Charlotte to do but go to bed. When she wakes up in the morning, she is once again Charlotte. Emily is gone, and Charlotte is back in her own time with her regular roommates. However, it quickly becomes clear that this was not just a dream, and this strange incident repeats itself each day, after Charlotte sleeps in the same bed.
Whenever Charlotte shifts to take Clare’s place in the past, she loses a day in her own time, which helps to convince her that she is not dreaming when she is Clare. Every other day, Charlotte switches places and times with Clare, and she sees the school as it was in the past, toward the end of World War I. Apparently, Clare is living Charlotte’s life whenever Charlotte is living hers, and nobody around them seems to have noticed the switch. Charlotte has no idea why this is happening, other than the fact that she and Clare happen to be sleeping in the same bed, in the same room.
is fascinated by her trips to the past, but they are disorienting. She now has two sets of names to learn, the
people in the past and the people in the present. There are different school rules in the past,
too, and she was still getting used to the rules in her own time. Charlotte and Clare also need to do some of
each other’s homework for classes, and there are some things they can’t
do. Charlotte can’t write an essay about
Clare’s holidays because she has no idea what Clare did on her school holidays,
and Clare is very bad at arithmetic, giving Charlotte bad grades.
The next time she makes the switch, Charlotte learns that Clare and Emily do not usually sleep in the Cedar room. Because of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, girls have been shifted around as the sick ones are quarantined. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, Clare has created a new diary in an exercise book with Charlotte’s name on it. In the book, Clare has written a letter to Charlotte about their situation. She asks Charlotte to look after Emily when they’re together and to write messages back to her. Clare doesn’t think they should tell Emily about what’s happening. Clare worries that Emily will be confused and frightened.
However, Emily soon discovers the truth, and Charlotte comes to rely on her as the only person in the past who knows who she really is. Emily notices differences between the way Charlotte behaves and the way that Clare behaves, but they are uncanny in their resemblance and behavior in other ways. In many ways, Emily is bolder than both Charlotte and Clare, although her boldness is often to the point of being brash or callous. She is sometimes impatient with Charlotte and Clare’s softer natures, but their apparent softness is due to their greater sense of life’s consequences and their sense of responsibility for Emily. Emily finds talk of the war and bombings exciting, but Charlotte and Clare are both aware of the dangerous reality. As Emily gets to know Charlotte, she points out the ways that she and Clare are similar yet different, and she says that the more time Charlotte spends in 1918, the more like Clare she is becoming. Charlotte worries about the resemblance between her and Clare and how natural it is becoming for her to act like Clare.
In the present, Charlotte is initiated into the usual pranks of a British boarding school by her new roommates, and in the past, she sees soldiers in World War I uniforms. In 1918, students whisper about whether a classmate with a German father could actually be a German spy, and Charlotte is introduced to air-raid alarms. In the 1960s, Charlotte’s roommates wonder about her funny moods, her odd need to be alone, and her reluctance to be friends and join them in activities. In both time periods, Charlotte is constantly afraid of giving everything away by saying something that would be out of character for the person she’s supposed to be or asking questions that she should already be able to answer if she were living every day in one time period. The one element that seems constant throughout these shifts is the bed that she and Clare share in the Cedar room. However, Clare and Emily will soon be sent to board with a family in town, only returning to the school as day pupils. When the Cedar room is turned into another quarantine room for the sick, Charlotte is trapped in the past as Clare, and she worries that she may never return home again. What will happen to her, and will she lose her identity as Charlotte, becoming Clare forever?
This book is a modern classic in children’s literature! I decided that I had to read it because so many people have nostalgic memories of this book and have written positive reviews about it. The Cure even did a song and music video inspired by the book. The song even contains words from the book in the lyrics. This is the original music video that goes with the song.
The book is the third book in the The Aviary Hall trilogy. It is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). The other two books in the trilogy are also available on Internet Archive, but Charlotte Sometimes is often regarded as the best of the three and is the best known.
Note: Strangely, this book has three different ending, depending on the edition of the book. Older editions (the original and printings from the 1970s) contain the full text, and newer editions are cropped in two different places. The copies on Internet Archive are different editions and have different endings. This one contains the full text of the original. This one and this one have the endings that include Emily’s letter but not the final scene with Charlotte going home from school. The others don’t have the part with Emily’s letter at all. In order to learn the difference between these endings and the significance of Emily’s letter, you’ll have to read the part of my review that includes spoilers.
I was amused by the part where Emily laughs at the name Charlotte because she thinks that it’s kind of old-fashioned in 1918, yet Charlotte is from the future. Names often go in cycles of popularity, and certain classic names have comebacks at regular periods. Right now, in the early 21st century, the names Charlotte, Emma, Emily, and Clare (or Claire) are all pretty popular. In fact, Charlotte has seen a recent resurgence in popularity in the United States. Modern children reading this would actually find many of the names very familiar, thanks to a trend of reviving vintage and classic names. In fact, some of the 1918 names are more popular these days than some of the 1960s names, like Janet and Susannah. Don’t worry, they’ll have their turn again.
I also liked the part where Charlotte tries to consider whether she and Clare really look alike. Emily is a little vague about whether Charlotte and Clare really resemble each other, saying that she might have just seen “Clare” in her because Clare was who she expected to see and that she never really looked at her properly until she realized that she was actually Charlotte. Charlotte thinks about a time where she tried to draw herself by studying her own features in a mirror, but the longer she stared at herself, the more disconnected that she felt from the features she was seeing. This is actually a real phenomenon, and I’ve read other books where people have mentioned it. You can get some odd feelings by staring at yourself in a mirror for too long. I’ve tried it myself, and it can get a little eerie, especially if you look yourself right in the eyes and try not to blink. The longer you look, the more eerie it gets. That’s how that old sleepover trick, Bloody Mary, works. This is sometimes called the “strange-face illusion.” Although Charlotte is having a kind of identity crisis from switching places with Clare, this mirror phenomenon is something that anyone can experience.
Further Note: At the time that I first published this review, January 1, 2020, I hadn’t yet heard of the coronavirus, and I had no way of knowing that there was going to be an outbreak that would eventually turn into a pandemic. Now, in February 2020, I’d like to point out some things to anybody who is as creeped out as I am about this disease. (I had the images of the influenza in this story in my mind when I first started hearing about the coronavirus outbreak, and it didn’t do a lot for my peace of mind.)
Coronavirus and the 1918 influenza have some similarities and differences. Normal seasonal influenza has a death rate of approximately 0.1%. The influenza epidemic of 1918, colloquially called “Spanish Flu“, had a death rate of approximately 2.5%, and it was frightening because many of its victims had been young and apparently healthy before infection, and they died fairly quickly after becoming ill, in a matter of days. (I have more information about that down below.) It spread remarkably fast because of the mass movements of people between countries due to World War I and soldiers returning home toward the end of the war, to the point where it’s never been firmly established exactly where the virus originated.
The coronavirus (as of February 2020, estimates may change later) has a death rate of approximately 2.3%, and most of those deaths have been people who are very old and/or had underlying health problems. It’s bad, but oddly, also somewhat hopeful because, unlike the 1918 influenza, where it wasn’t always obvious who was the most as risk, we can tell ahead of time with the coronavirus who is most at risk, which is helpful for protecting people who are the most vulnerable. We know where the coronavirus started, and although it has spread to countries around the world, public health officials have been taking steps to quarantine people who have contracted the disease or who have been to regions with known infections. It has spread, but perhaps not as rapidly as the Spanish Flu because the 1918 public health officials didn’t understand what they were dealing with at first and didn’t take the steps that we are taking now. If there was any good side to the 1918 influenza epidemic, it was probably that it taught us a few things about how to handle pandemics, including what not to do when one is occurring. The two viruses aren’t precisely the same, but being aware of what we have learned from past experience may help us to stop the situation from becoming worse than it might be otherwise. I know that what is happening and what is probably about to happen is not going to be good because this is just not a good situation, and that can’t be helped, but what can be helped is how we respond to it and make use of what we already know. This current situation is not going to last, but what we do while the situation still exists is going to determine how well we come out of it.
This is not a good time for international travel, and if you can avoid traveling until this crisis is over, I would recommend doing that. If you are in a safe place, I recommend staying there until the crisis passes, and wherever you are, follow the instructions you are given by your public health officials. Before this is over, you may actually get the coronavirus. (I might, too, and I know that as I type this. I live in Arizona, and we’ve only had a few cases so far, but that’s so far.) Health officials are working on a vaccine, but that takes time, and it may not be widely available until next year. However, if you are not in one of the at-risk groups, you will likely survive the experience if you get it, and if you do what your health officials tell you to do, you can help yourself to recover from the disease and avoid spreading it to others. If you think you may be in one of the at-risk groups, follow the instructions that your doctor gives you and seek help (by telephone first) if you think that you may be ill. Try not to be too afraid because, although I know this all sounds scary, one of the first steps to handling difficult situations is believing that it is possible to handle them and taking the steps you know how to take. Take care of yourselves, and consider others as much as possible, too.
Further update: I am now fully vaccinated as of May 2021! I got the reaction that a lot of people got from the Pfizer vaccine; I felt like I had the flu for about a day after getting the second shot. But, after that, I was fine, and I recommend it to other people (provided that you aren’t allergic to anything in the shots – that seems to be the one real caveat to getting them). If you’re a conspiracy theorist, I have not experienced any weird mind control, and I don’t feel any different than I did before. I’m still reading and reviewing children’s books, making various random craft projects, listening to the same YouTube videos, and getting irritated with people I think are jerks, so my version of normal is still basically what it was before. I wouldn’t say that the pandemic is completely over yet because many people are still getting sick and haven’t had their shots, but having more people vaccinated is a good sign. My home state ended up being hit pretty hard during the worst of it, and we have seen some improvement since then because more people are being vaccinated. With vaccinations now open to people age 12 and over, I’m hopeful that there will be more improvement by the end of summer.
Themes and Spoilers
There is a lot more that I’d like to discuss about this book, but I wanted to save this discussion for the end because discussing this story and my opinion of it in depth reveals some major spoilers.
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic
First, I love stories with historical background! When I was in school, my teachers didn’t cover World War I and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in detail. My high school history teacher, for example, was a major Civil War buff, and she spent so much time going over the major battles of the American Civil War and making us watch Gone with the Wind (which I had already seen and didn’t like because I never liked the character of Scarlett O’Hara) that she kind of rushed through the early 20th century with us, charging onward to World War II. If she said anything about the Influenza Pandemic, it wasn’t much, and it didn’t make much of an impression. In fact, I think that the first time I ever heard about the 1918 Influenza Pandemic (although I can’t remember exactly when I first became aware of it) was through fiction, even though one of my own family members died in that pandemic. However, this was an important, worldwide event that came right at the end of the First World War, and it was shocking because the people who were frequently hit the hardest by the disease were people who were normally young and strong, the people who would usually have been the ones most likely to survive under normal circumstances.
No one knows precisely where and how the pandemic began, although people have attempted to go back through the records and isolate the first cases. This is more difficult than it sounds because the earliest cases of the influenza were lighter, not fatal, and people didn’t think that much about them at first. Also, because of World War I, the mass movement of people across countries due to the war, and the masses of troops returning from the front, the disease was spread farther and faster than it might have been otherwise. Charlotte Sometimes shows some of that real-life pattern. Early in the story, when Charlotte first begins switching places with Clare, a member of the school’s faculty in the past talks about how Clare and Emily were shifted from their old room to the Cedar room because they needed a room for the sick children at the school. At this point in the story, people don’t seem to be panicking about the illness because this was the first phase of the epidemic, when people were getting the earlier, less serious form of the disease, but it’s foreshadowing later events. At one point, Charlotte in the past is blocked from entering the Cedar room and returning to her own time because the disease has spread further through the school and the Cedar Room is also turned into a sick room.
This is a major spoiler, but after Charlotte finally returns home to her own time to stay, she learns that Clare is not alive in her time because she also became ill with influenza, the more deadly form, and she died not long after the end of the war and the end of their time-traveling adventures. At the time of her death, Clare was about thirteen years old and apparently healthy otherwise, which is in keeping with the way this particular illness affected many of its victims. There were a couple of factors which made younger people more vulnerable:
Unprepared immune systems and the body’s overreaction – Young people may have had less exposure to less serious forms of the same disease from earlier years that would have primed their immune systems to respond appropriately when they encountered this influenza. The human body has certain natural defenses against diseases, like the way it can raise a fever to kill off invading germs with higher temperatures, but sometimes, a disease can strike so hard that the body overreacts to fight it (the technical name for this reaction is “cytokine storm“), causing more damage to itself. Sometimes, this can even happen to the point where the body’s own defenses damage the body itself so much that the person dies or develops a secondary problem, such as pneumonia, that could potentially lead to their death. This is an important factor to consider when evaluating why this form of influenza tended to kill otherwise healthy young people – their immune systems were the strongest and also less primed than older adults, so they were the most likely to overreact. This is where modern vaccines can help, providing the priming the body’s immunity system needs to properly cope with serious diseases it has never seen before.
Secondary infections – The people who died of the influenza tended to die of the pneumonia that set in as a secondary infection in their damaged lungs, possibly partly as a result of the body’s overreaction. This was before the development of antibiotics like penicillin, which we use to treat such infections now. This is also where vaccines come in handy because people who can avoid getting sick also avoid developing secondary problems from the illness. Unfortunately, there was no vaccine available in 1918. It wasn’t even obvious to the medical professionals of the time what they were really dealing with, and they lacked medicines that could have helped because they were developed later.
This is basically what happened to Clare, an otherwise healthy teenager, when she caught the influenza. Clare, of course, is a fictional character, but her life and fate were based on real people of the time. This was part of what made the pandemic so scary. People of the time noticed that even people who otherwise seemed young, strong, and healthy were dying of this disease, and it was happening fast. If you read grown-up Emily’s letter to Charlotte in the longer endings to the book, Clare died in a matter of a few days after becoming ill. (This still sometimes happens, but in this particular epidemic, it was happening on a massive scale.) It was happening all over the world, in small towns as well as big cities, and there was nowhere anyone could go to escape it.
Because of the shocking spread of the disease and the tragic youth of many of its victims, the event has found its way into fiction, even children’s literature. Before it was depicted on the television show, Downton Abbey, it was named as Edward Cullen‘s impending cause of death if he hadn’t been turned into a vampire in the Twilight young adult series (he was also a teenager, although older), and it was also described in one of the books of the Sarah, Plain and Tall series, set in the American Midwest. (None of the main characters die in that story, although Anna becomes a nurse and the others fear for her safety, and they witness the burial of a baby who died from the disease, as one of my grandmother’s younger brothers did in real life.)
I added a note above, discussing some of the ways the coronavirus and the 1918 influenza were similar and different. What I’ve described regarding the 1918 influenza’s effects on younger people does not seem to be the case with the current coronavirus (as of February 2020). There may be exceptions, just like more typical seasonal forms of influenza occasionally become serious even in cases of normally healthy young people (I’m not an expert, so I can’t say what the chances of that are, it seems that an overreaction of the immune system is still a primary concern with the coronavirus), but the pattern for the coronavirus so far is that it is most dangerous to the very old and those with underlying health problems. In this situation, we can do a lot to help them by protecting those we already know are most vulnerable.
World War I (or, The Great War)
There are many other historical nuggets in this book besides the influenza epidemic. As I mentioned before, Charlotte learns about life in British boarding schools in the past, finding the discipline harder and the food not as good (possibly due to war rationing).
Some of her 1918 classmates are suspicious of another classmate, Elsie, whose father is German, and they talk about how their parents think that Germans living in England should be interned in camps to isolate them from the rest of the population because some of them might be spies. Emily asks what kind of information a schoolgirl like Elsie could possibly find to pass on to harm the war effort, and one of the other girls says that if one of them comments about a letter they’ve received from their father, saying that he is with the troops in France, Elsie could pass that to her parents, and they could pass it along to Germany. Emily says that’s silly because everyone knows that there are British troops in various places in France, and even Charlotte knows that all British mail is read and censored during this time. In other words, nobody could say anything specific enough in a letter to their children that would be a risk if little Elsie happened to hear about it. Elsie is also plainly uncomfortable with the other girls’ suspicions. Modern adults would see Elsie for what she is: a little girl, very much like the others, born and raised in England, with little personal connection to the country where her father was born. She’s been caught up in the circumstances of the wider world against her will, suddenly finding herself labeled as an outsider in the only home she’s ever known. As a child, there’s not a lot that Elsie can do about this situation, and one wonders if the adults would do anything to help if they knew about it. This was the level of wartime paranoia, and the children were getting it from their parents. It’s difficult for children to learn to behave calmly and reasonably when the adults in their lives are not doing so themselves.
The war is always present in the lives of the 1918 children. Charlotte is also forced to take part in an air-raid alarm at school. When she and Emily board with the Chisel Brown family, they talk about Arthur, their son who was killed in the war, and at one point, they hold a seance to try to contact him. This is also based on real life. There was a rise in spiritualism and spiritualist practices because of the war, just like there was after the American Civil War. When society has been through something traumatic and lost loved ones, they sometimes turn to practices like this for comfort and the hope of reaching out to the people they’ve lost. When Charlotte and Emily witness the seance, they hear Clare’s voice calling to Emily. The girls are not able to communicate with Clare further than that, and there’s no real explanation for why this happened. It’s before Clare dies in her time, and we never hear from Clare’s perspective at any point in the book.
The family, especially Mr. Chisel Brown, have bitter feelings about the war because of Arthur’s death. The bitter feelings are reflected in the way they speak. At one point in the story, Mr. Chisel Brown says, “Damned peace-talk, damned conchies (conscientious objectors – people who refused to fight for moral reasons), hun-lovers (German sympathizers). Should all be hanged, I say.” This is about the strongest language in the book. The girls’ bedroom at the Chisel Brown house has a rather horrifying anti-German poster in it called “Mark of the German Beast,” and when Mr. Chisel Brown thinks that the girls aren’t behaving themselves, he says that they have “hunnish manners,” using references to Germans as derogatory terms.
Different Editions, Different Endings
Another reason to explain about the fate of the characters is so I can explain how different editions of this book are different from each other. There are three possible endings to the book, depending on which edition you have. In all versions, the reader learns that Emily is Sarah’s mother, and that is the reason why Sarah singled out Charlotte and guided her to that particular bed at the beginning of the book, because her mother asked her to be nice to Charlotte and to help her, knowing what was going to happen with Charlotte and Clare.
Some of the more modern printings of the story omit sections at the end of the book that were part of the original story in which Charlotte hears from the adult Emily in modern times and where Charlotte heads home for Christmas at the end of the term. Even books that say they are unabridged (including the one that I have from Vintage Classics) sometimes include the letter and package from Emily but omit the part where Charlotte goes home on the bus with the other children, for some reason. I’ve seen all three ending formats, and each time one of these sections is cropped off the end of the book, it changes the tone of the ending and some of the subtle meaning of the story.
In books without the letter from Emily or the bus ride home, the ones with the shortest ending, the story ends with Charlotte finding Clare’s old diary hidden in the bedpost of their bed with her last message to Clare and no reply, and the book simply ends. It’s just kind of a sad reflection that Clare is now gone, and the adventures are over. Charlotte is just left with the memory of what happened with no further reflection on what’s it’s going to mean for her life in the future. I find this ending rather stark and unfulfilling, and I don’t know why this was done to the book.
In the first section of the book that is sometimes omitted, Emily writes a letter to Charlotte and sends her some toys that they were given as children in 1918: a bag of marbles, a solitaire board (the board game played with marbles as pieces), and some toy soldiers. Charlotte puts the marbles in a glass of water on her dresser (like Emily once did in the past because the marbles look bigger and shinier in water), the first personal touch that she’s given to her place in the dorm because she’s really only spent about half her time there, and she reflects on how her experiences as Clare have become part of her personal identity. She compares her experiences as Clare and the impact that it has had on her to the country’s experiences of the war and how it has changed life for all of them, far after the events were over. World War I changed the world and will remain part of history, just as Clare is now a part of Charlotte’s personal history. I thought it nicely summed up Charlotte’s feelings about how aspects of Clare have become part of her own personality, although there is one further point to be made about Charlotte’s future.
In the final section of the book, which is omitted the most often and is apparently only found in the oldest editions of the book, pre-1980s, Charlotte takes the bus home from school at the end of term after getting the letter and package from Emily. Charlotte is looking forward to Christmas, and she and other children chant a variation of the “No more pencils, no more books” rhyme. (Their variant doesn’t actually use that phrase, although it has the same format.) Charlotte reflects that the countryside doesn’t really look any different in modern times than it did in 1918 and remembers that this is Sarah’s last term at school, so she may never see her (and, consequently, may never hear from Emily) again. The ending that ends just after Charlotte receives the letter from Emily and displays the marbles leaves Charlotte considering how Clare and her experiences in 1918 will always be a part of her, but the bus ride ends with her feeling more comfortable that she is truly Charlotte again, even after these experiences, and will be heading back to her family and her life in the present day. She is changed, but she is now sure of who she is, without her earlier quandaries about her own identity.
Each time a little piece is left off the end of the story, it changes the tone of the ending, but I like the full ending that includes the bus ride the best because, while Clare and the past will always be a part of Charlotte, Charlotte has regained her sense of identity as herself. She is a changed person because of her experiences, but she is still her own person, and her life is going to continue in the present, not stuck in the past. I also think that the part with Emily’s letter is important for settling unanswered questions for both Charlotte and the reader about what happened after the time travel ended and Clare died. In older Emily’s letter to Charlotte, she says that she knows that Charlotte is the worrying type, like Clare was, and she wants her to know that there is no reason to worry about her or her younger self because of Clare’s death. Emily reassures Charlotte that, although she was upset at Clare’s death, her life has turned out well. After Clare died, Emily continued attending the school, staying with her aunt on school holidays. Her father rejoined her and her aunt later when he was finally discharged from the army. When she grew up, Emily got married and had four children, even though she had said as a child that she didn’t want children at all. Emily also tells Charlotte that she has decided to keep the doll among the toys they were given for herself because it reminds her of another that her family used to own, which is another change in her attitude. When she was a child, she pointedly preferred the toy soldiers to the doll.
I like the versions that included the letter from Emily because, otherwise, her story seems incomplete. I also liked the idea that Emily got married and had children even after saying that she wouldn’t. When she was young, Emily didn’t like the idea of having children because of the way she and Clare were bounced around to different homes and schools after the death of their mother. Young Emily didn’t think it was fair to have children and then die, leaving them alone and at the mercy of other people, but as adult, we can suppose that Emily came to realize that dying isn’t the expectation of most parents. Her mother’s death wasn’t something that her mother could have anticipated any more than Clare’s was, and people can’t live their lives based solely on what might happen. Presumably, Emily eventually met and fell in love with a nice, stable man who helped to convince her that they could manage to raise a family together. Emily doesn’t describe her husband to Charlotte in her letter or go into detail about what he’s like, but she says that attitudes change as people grow up and her life has been generally happy. Life often takes people in directions that they never predicted when they were young. Some people who want to get married and have children never do, for one reason or another (there is a teacher at the school whose fiance was killed in WWI in 1918, and she is still unmarried in the 1960s, having devoted her life to teaching), and some who never thought that they would do anyway. As long as a person can be satisfied with their life, even if it’s not the one they originally imagined when they were young, they’re doing pretty well. Knowing that Emily is satisfied with her life as it turned out gives the readers as well as Charlotte a sense of completion at the end of the story.
The Vintage Classics copy that I have also had an extra section in the back with a list of the characters in the book (helpful for the time jumps) and additional information about the author and World War I.
Magic or Psychic Phenomenon?
This brings us to the reason why Charlotte and Clare were switching places, another factor that is impossible to discuss without considering Clare’s ultimate fate. The book never gives an exact reason why it all happened in any version of the story, although the characters speculate about and draw a few conclusions. Their speculations appear in all of the books , even the ones with the shorter endings. Charlotte and Clare have some similarities in their names (they share the same initials and the same middle name) and lives (they are of similar age, their mothers are both dead, they each have a younger sister with similar-sounding names, and they just recently started going to the same boarding school in their respective times). They might possibly look alike since most people don’t seem to notice many differences between them. It’s possible that the physical resemblance might be a product of whatever magic or psychic phenomenon is causing them to switch places, but I don’t think so or at least not entirely because they are definitely physically switching places and not just transferring into each other’s bodies. We know that they are physically switching places with each other instead of moving into each other’s bodies because, in the final switch at the end, Charlotte accidentally goes to bed while wearing Clare’s bathrobe, and when she wakes up in her own time, she’s still wearing it, causing her to wonder what people will think in 1918 because Clare’s bathrobe has inexplicably disappeared. (This is not Freaky Friday, which was about a body swap.)
However, Clare and Charlotte never meet face-to-face and apparently never see pictures of each other, so Charlotte is entirely dependent on other people’s descriptions of how much she and Clare look alike. It seems that they look enough alike to fool people who aren’t really paying attention, but the people who know them the best and are the most observant can spot which of them is which, even if they can’t exactly articulate how. In real life, the author of this book was one of a set of twins, so some of this seems to be based on her own experiences with her twin and how one person’s identity can be tied to another. According to a blog the author kept, the school in the story is based on the boarding school that she and her twin sister attended in Kent. She does not identify this school by name, but she provides pictures, including one of the cedar tree on the campus that provided the inspiration for the cedar tree in the book, and the pictures are of The New School at West Heath, the school that Princess Diana also attended as a child but at a later date than the author. The school used to be called West Heath Girls’ School and is now called simply West Heath School (this page contains a virtual tour of the school that also shows the cedar tree by the playground – link repaired May 13, 2022). It now accepts both girls and boys and provides special help for children suffering from emotional disorders, learning difficulties, and other personal problems.
What I suspect is the final key to the switch, aside from their odd similarity, is that Charlotte and Clare also may have been in a similar state of mind at the time the switches began taking place that made them more vulnerable to losing their identities. This is speculation, but in the beginning, Charlotte was feeling out-of-place and not quite herself in her new school, and it’s possible that Clare was in a similar emotional state, putting them even more in sympathy with each other.
One of Charlotte’s 1960s roommates, Elizabeth, learns the truth of the girls switching places and comes to be friends with Clare, helping Clare in the present as Emily was helping Charlotte in the past. At the end of the book, Charlotte and Elizabeth become better friends and discuss what made the time switch possible. They discuss the similarities in Clare and Charlotte’s lives and the common dates when the switching began taking place, drawing a few conclusions about the switching and how it was able to happen. Part of what they conclude has to do with the similarities between Charlotte and Clare, but they also take into account the fact that Clare is dead in their time. Although they don’t use these exact words to describe it, it all seems to revolve around two souls that are kindred spirits, but also the idea that human souls cannot be duplicated or divided.
Personal identity is an important theme in the story. Charlotte often finds herself worrying about losing her identity as she is forced to pretend to be Clare and to keep up the pretense of being something like Clare even when she’s in her own time so that her personality won’t seem to shift too abruptly. She and Clare seem to have some similarities in their personalities, but Emily and Elizabeth, the only two people who ever know about the switching, both say that Charlotte and Clare aren’t exactly alike. When Charlotte worries that she’s losing her own identity, she tries hard to look for ways that she and Clare are different, which is difficult for her because, again, while Charlotte is living Clare’s life, she never actually meets Clare and has to rely on others’ descriptions of her personality. Even Emily and Elizabeth never see Charlotte and Clare side-by-side to compare. Charlotte is pleased whenever Emily comments that something she says or does isn’t exactly what Clare would have said or done in the same situation. Toward the end of the book, Charlotte tries to press Elizabeth more about the differences between herself and Clare, trying to clarify her own personality by what makes her different from Clare. Elizabeth tries to explain it by comparing the two of them to another pair of girls in their dorm at school. Those two girls are best friends and often like the same things and do similar things, but they are still very distinct people, like Charlotte and Clare are. It’s not an explicit answer, but it does show that Elizabeth can recognize Charlotte and Clare as different people, independent of each other, in spite of what happened and even though others didn’t notice the differences between them. Yet, the similarities between Charlotte and Clare, and perhaps their similar states of mind, seem to be central factors that allowed them to switch places with each other. Two very similar girls in sympathetic states of mind, happened to be occupying the same physical space (the bed at school) at the same time of year (the beginning of the school year), just years apart.
There is also the matter of Clare’s early death. Both Charlotte and Elizabeth are sad when they learn that Clare died back in 1918, but Elizabeth reasons it out, saying that it makes sense that Clare died and that Emily was Sarah’s mother all along. As Elizabeth explains, Charlotte couldn’t have remained in 1918 and grown up there to become Sarah’s mother (as Charlotte feared might be the truth) because, by the time she was an adult, she would also have been born into their time as Charlotte, and there would have been two Charlottes alive at the same time. If Clare had lived to adulthood and become a mother, there would also be two Clares alive at the same time when the girls started switching places. Both of those situations would have been a logical impossibility because no single person can be two different ages, child and adult, in the same period of time. Even if they were in two different bodies, it would be the same soul because it would be the same person, and there could not be duplicates of a unique, individual soul or personality.
I like it that the book takes the fascinating premise that, even if human souls can swap places with each other or be accidentally confused for one another, they are still unique, individual, and whole, separate from each other, indivisible, and impossible to duplicate. As Elizabeth puts it, Clare was the only one who even could have made the journey through time to swap with Charlotte (or anyone else occupying that bed) because there was no living Clare in the 1960s to create a paradox, just as there was no Charlotte in past because she hadn’t been born yet. If Clare was not already fated to die young, the time journey would have been completely impossible. This is also the reason why nobody else switched places while sleeping in that particular bed. Not only did they not happen to have a similar counterpart occupying the same space at a different point in time, as Clare and Charlotte did, but everyone else who slept in that bed survived and was present in both the past and the future. Elizabeth says that it’s like Clare was a kind of ghost, although she was very solid and alive throughout the switching and her death from influenza took place after it was over. The idea bothers Charlotte because that would have made her a kind of ghost when she traveled back in time, too. Is it possible for someone to be a ghost before they’ve died?
There is no complete answer to that. Part of what makes the book fascinating is the possibilities it raises and allows the reader to consider. There are no magic spells in the book. There is a seance scene, as I mentioned in the section about WWI information, during which Emily and Charlotte hear Clare’s voice instead of the young soldier killed in the war that the family was attempting to contact. However, the main phenomenon of the story doesn’t seem to rely on magic so much as some kind of psychic phenomena – kindred spirits who happened to be sharing a particular space and ended up sharing each other’s lives across time.